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With Stanley and Watson, sound isn't elementary

By Greg Yost, August 2017

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You see, Bear's recordings of Old and in the Way, a bluegrass band featuring Garcia alongside well-known acoustic pickers like David Grisman, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan and John Kahn, were made into a highly successful album, and that got the ball rolling for this future project.

Starfinder explains, "The Old and in the Way recordings were shows that he recorded in 1973 at the Boarding House and that's actually one of the reasons that when we saw these Doc and Merle reels we said, ‘Oh, we need to listen to these.' These were recorded at the Boarding House in 1974, so about eight months after the recording of Old and in the Way."

"They took the recordings from the Boarding House and made the ‘Old and in the Way' album and that was the number one selling bluegrass album of all time up until ‘O Brother, Where Art Thou?' came out and then that soundtrack sold really well and bumped it to number two."

"It's known for how clear and crisp the sound is and how wonderfully it captures the sound of the room, so we knew that Bear had a lot of experience miking and acoustic-based band in this particular venue and knew the quality of the recording he made just eight months before, so we were really excited to get the chance to listen to these Doc and Merle recordings."

The decision to start with Doc and Merle Watson also made sense for other reasons. Hawk Semins, the foundation's secretary and legal counsel, explains, "When you talk about 80 artists in the archive with so many of them household names, who do you pick? Everybody knows we've got the Grateful Dead. Everybody knows we've got the Jefferson Airplane, Janis, Quicksilver and all those folks, but to try to showcase the diversity of the collection and the stature of the artists in the archive, who better than a seven-time Grammy winner, National Medal of Honor winner who played for at least two presidents?"

Semins also said, "One of the things we wanted to emphasize is that Bear's Sonic Journals are more than just good music. This is American musical history. The reason that we want to preserve this archive is not just because there's some great shows on here that are going to be enjoyable to listen to. This is a really important piece of American musical history, and Doc Watson is an American musical legend. And the music that came out of San Francisco at the end of the ‘60s is this really important part of American musical history, and so we just felt that this was a great way to showcase that convergence of American music."

The next decision the Foundation had to make is whether or not to release all of the Doc and Merle recordings from the Boarding House or whittle them down to narrow the focus on a single show or two. The Foundation considered one key question – how would Bear do this?

Ultimately, the decision was made fairly easy when they considered Bear's philosophy for releasing live recordings. Starfinder explains, "Bear was very particular about how the music was utilized. He did not view these as recordings that could be taken apart and overdubbed and utilized to make something different. He really viewed them as Sonic Journals, as capturing the experience of being in the audience at the show. That they were time capsules or time machines that would take you to that concert and let you experience what it was like to be in the audience, and he really felt that when you started messing with it, you were going to lose a lot of what was magical about those recordings."

In its full 7-disc form, which includes gorgeous design work by Mechanica USA, "Never The Same Way Once…" was fittingly unveiled to the world at the 2017 edition of MerleFest, an annual music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C. created in 1988 by Doc Watson as a way to honor the memory of his son Merle, who died in 1985 as a result of a tractor accident.

So what did hardcore bluegrass fans think about this set? According to Semins, it was a hit, but it took a little convincing to win over some of the festival-goers. "It was kind of amazing because they gave us a prime spot in the MerleFest Mall area, right before the checkout. Sort of the last thing you see before you get to the cash registers. Half the people on the first day and throughout many of the days who were new to the MerleFest Mall would come by and say, ‘Well I have all the Doc stuff, I don't need any more Doc.' And you get a lot of folks saying they've heard this before. And we'd say, ‘You really haven't.'"

"We had a listening station, and we'd pop on some Bose headsets, and after the first day, we started taking pictures of their faces during ‘Black Mountain Rag' on disc number seven. They'd have this very serious look on their faces, they'd be looking down like, ‘Okay, I've heard this before, yeah yeah ‘Black Mountain Rag'' and their eyes would just pop up like ‘oh my God,' and I'd say, ‘No, no, no, keep listening,' and then they'd burst into a huge smile, and they were just sold right then and there."

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