While there have been other recordings that document Doc Watson’s early years as a performing musician, they tend to shine a light more directly on him as a stage performer, which of course is what he became.
This recording, Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton, distinguishes itself in some key ways. It’s earlier, for one—it’s Watson’s first trip north—drawing from two concerts in Greenwich Village in October 1962. It’s also notably natural; they aren’t working up an act but rather just playing the songs they knew, just as they would play them at home in the front room.
There aren’t any lost gems, though the arrangements offer a unique view of how Watson was developing the material. Some tunes, as with the arrangement of “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” aren’t yet fully formed. It’s short, paced a bit slower than we know, but it’s there.
Watson plays banjo for about half of the tunes, including a beautiful duet on “Willie Moore” with Carlton on fiddle. It’s a standout for its precision as well as for what Bill Monroe called the “ancient tones.” The drone of the fiddle, and the story of the murder, make it like listening through a keyhole to 19th century rural Appalachia.
“Blue Ridge Mountain Blues” demonstrates the contrast between arranging for banjo and fiddle and arranging for guitar and fiddle. It’s an example of what Watson would become known for, with all the bass runs, fills, and inversions that really give life to a song. Same, too, with “Billy in the Lowground.” A notable absence are the fast lead lines that, in time, would influence entire. generations of guitarists.
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is a rare window into a important moment in Watson’s development. He’s young, relaxed, playing for a joyful audience of strangers who love what he has to give. We’re lucky to be able to hear it.
(for Penguin Eggs)