Review: Doc Watson – The Definitive Doc Watson

You can be forgiven for thinking, “Do we really need another collection of Doc Watson recordings?” When I heard of this release, that’s what I thought. My initial impression was that Sugar Hill was just releasing something in order to drum up some sales in light of Watson’s passing in May of last year.

Once I got my hands on this collection, I realised that the answer is, actually, yes, you do need another collection of Watson recordings, and this is it. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into selecting the tracks here, and Jack Lawrence, long-time guitar player with Watson, was one of the people involved. As well, the tracks have been remastered, evening out some of the sonic anomalies of the very early recordings, allowing them to sit well alongside the later recordings, the most recent of which is a duet with Bryan Sutton on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” recorded in 2006.

But then there is this: while there have indeed been many Watson releases over the years—he recorded more than 60 albums, and they were in turn redistributed in countless collections of one sort or another—this is the first one to jointly anthologize the Vanguard Records and Sugar Hill Records periods of Doc’s discography. The only thing better (and who knows, maybe one day we’ll get it) would be a collection that also anthologizes recordings from the Smithsonian releases, which were the earliest recordings of Watson ever made available. The first recording ever made of him was a field recording at a fiddle convention when he was still just in his early teens. It’s a rough recording, and the intro is brutal to endure, but once Watson plays, it’s fascinating. Smithsonian released the duets of Doc Watson and Clarence Ashley and later the duets with Bill Monroe and Jean Ritchie. You really feel those absences on this collection, as you do the duets he did with Chet Atkins, an album called Reflections which is now inexplicably out of print. (People in the US can get it in digital download through iTunes, and if you don’t have it, do yourself another favour and download it. I live in Canada, and can’t buy it through iTunes … so much for free trade.)

“Dream Of The Miner’s Child”

Nevertheless, this collection includes the broadest selection of Watson’s work ever released in a single product: 34 tracks recorded from 1962 to the last recording he made, that one with Bryan Sutton, in 2006. From beginning to end, it’s a delight. There are lots of familiar tunes here, such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Shady Grove,” and “Black Mountain Rag.” But, there are also a fair number of tunes that, unless you are a diehard Watson collector, you may not have heard much of. There’s nothing rare, and everything is available on the original albums, but with so many albums out there, really, it’s hard to hear it all. I like that they begin this collection with “The Cyclone of Rye Cove,” and I like that they included “Southbound,” one of the few songs that Watson wrote to really enter his repertoire.

It’s interesting, too, that they choose material that sits well together, deciding not to include tracks from some of the albums that he did that were a bit further from the core of his work, such as the Docabilly album. What this collection comprises is a very informed collection of songs, chosen by people who worked with Watson. As such it collects a range of the material he released, not just the songs that get all the attention. There are some interesting absences—“Midnight on the Stormy Deep” doesn’t appear here—but, in fact, that adds to the collection as a whole, in that you don’t feel you’re just hearing all the familiar stuff all over again. It all sounds fresh and alive. And, with two wonderful liner essays, you really couldn’t ask for much more. This is the collection that really will remind you of how charming, talented, and entertaining Doc Watson was.

Sugar Hill Records

Glen Herbert

Glen Herbert is a writer, editor and amateur musician. He lives in Burlington, Ontario.

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