Celebrating a Bluegrass Icon With a Massive 101-Track Compilation
Who wouldn’t want to listen to a hundred tracks worth of Doc Watson? There are actually 101 songs on the latest compilation of the bluegrass icon’s massive output, Life’s Work: A Retrospective, streaming at Spotify. It’s got everything that made Watson a first-ballot Country Music Hall of Famer and one of the best-loved Americana artists of all time.
He may have been best known for his whirlwind, seemingly effortless flatpicking, and this playlist has plenty of that, including some choice live takes. Watson follows his signature showstopper Tickling the Strings with a similarly high-voltage version of Black Mountain Rag. His wind-tunnel legato picking in Southbound and Dill Pickle Rag, just to name a couple of songs here, will take your breath away.
But there’s much more. Pulling this playlist together was a herculean effort. Watson’s collaborations with other artists are represented on several tracks, notably when he harmonizes with Bill Monroe on Monroe’s first big bluegrass hit, the fire-and-brimstone waltz What Would You Give in Exchange For Your Soul. Many of these songs draw a straight line back from Appalachia to their origins in the British isles: case in point, the wistfully oldtimey waltz Storms on the Ocean, with Jean Ritchie.
There are several tracks with his guitarist son Merle (who died tragically and inspired the elder Watson to found Merlefest, the annual bluegrass festival), from the country gospel hymn We Shall All Be Reunited, to an intricate take of the murder ballad Banks of the Ohio. Doc Watson was also a talented banjo player, and there are a bunch of banjo tunes here, including Rambling Hobo, which was the first song his dad taught him on the instrument.
There are all kinds of unexpected treats here. There’s My Little Woman, You’re So Sweet, a minor-key blues that Elvis ended up appropriating for Heartbreak Hotel. The Jack Williams Band does a swinging, jangly electric version of the ominous old spiritual, Pharaoh with Watson out in front.
There’s a goofy murder ballad, Wanted Man, the considerably creepier Little Omie Wise. and the even more grimly detailed I Saw a Man at Close of Day, about a drunk who kills his family. And in Watson’s version of Tom Dooley, the condemned man is innocent.
The history here runs deep. Many of these songs underscore the cross-pollination between 19th century black and white folk music, including a laid-back bluegrass take of Sittin on Top of the World, a spare cowboy variant on St. James Infirmary and one of the scores of versions of John Henry. In this one, the guy beats the steam drill and lives to tell the tale.
The tracks are chronological. As the collection goes on, Watson’s voice grows flintier, and some cheesy material and subpar collaborators occasionally make an appearance But his chops are always miles ahead of the rest of the band, whoever they are.
The very first song in this collection is a digitized, lo-fi mono field recording of the country gospel standard The Precious Jewel. The clarity of the young Watson’s voice, even in this rough mix, is breathtaking; otherwise, it’s impossible to tell if he’s playing an acoustic or electric guitar. The song cuts off suddenly at the end. How little audience recordings have changed over the years.