There are few more frictions than when folk start discussing who is the best guitarist ever. It’s guaranteed to produce a bevy of opinions, as ever more effusive hyperbole gets trotted out, ever more fierce grudges dusted down, and ever more unlikely proponents pushed forward. So we won’t go there, other than to comment that Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was probably in the top few, certainly if you remove the anathema of electricity. (To be fair, he probably had way more electricity than many a blues-rock road warrior, but remained resolutely unplugged the length of his days, 1923 – 2012.) He merited a tribute long ago, and now, with I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100, he’s got a fairly worthy one.
I Am a Pilgrim is crammed with musicians great and the good, partly drawn from the country/bluegrass/Americana palette he made his home, coming together to salute his playing, his singing and his all round good-eggness. Quite what Watson might have made of such a shindig is anyone guess, the fuss possibly embarrassing the quietly spoken and mild-mannered dude all parties suggest he was.
I first came across Watson’s superlative talent when I was a teenaged schoolboy. A new boy in class was an expatriate Yank, with a precocious talent for fiddle, or violin, as I then thought it was called. He drew my attention to the now and rightly fabled triple album set, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. My Deep Purpled and Pink Floyded mind was blown, possibly never again grouping back together again in the same way, such was the richness of the material across those discs, as a plethora of country royalty got to spar with some longhair hippies, burying prejudices and forging alliances aplenty.
Doc Watson was a key part of that. His mellifluous picking seemed just so impossibly relaxed and, at the same time, impossible to grasp. Add in his down-homey back porch dialogue, one of the delights of the project, and he just seems the coolest man on earth. Seriously, if you haven’t heard him at full pelt, raising nary a bead of sweat, try to search him out. With all the recordings containing his name–solo, with his son, with his grandson, collaborations aplenty–you can’t go wrong.
I Am a Pilgrim was curated and executively produced by, predominantly, Mitch Greenhill, the author of Raised by Musical Mavericks: Recalling life lessons from Pete Seeger, Lightnin’ Hopkins, Doc Watson, Rev. Gary Davis and Others, as well as being President of FLi Artists/Folklore Productions. Actual desk production duties were by Matthew Stevens, a guitarist and songwriter himself, as well as a producer across a range of genres. This explains how, as well as expected culprits along the line of Steve Earle and Jerry Douglas, so too we get the likes of Bill Frisell and Marc Ribot. Additional vocal polish comes from Dolly Parton, Rosanne Cash and Valerie June, so this isn’t purely for the pickers out there.
It is with Douglas that the I Am a Pilgrim ball gets rolling. The dobro man peeling off a typically expansive “Shady Grove,” that traditional tune nonpartisan audiences know as the melody behind “Matty Groves” by Fairport Convention. Douglas teases out the recognition for a fair few bars, before delivering a doozy, a perfect opener and mood setter. Dolly Parton then chimes in with her unmistakable tones, delivering the well-known standard, “The Last Thing On My Mind.” Dolly’s at the warblier end of her range; I confess I found myself drawn more to the backing, a veritable cross-stitch of weaving guitars, but if you like her, you’ll love it.
Talking of love, if you love a dirge, Nora Brown gives the best, backed by a somber harmonium and lonesome fiddle. “Am I Born To Die” is the name and it haunts the ears long after the listen. Sticking then with low key, Jeff Parker and Matthew Stevens play sweet and low for “Alberta.” Whilst Stevens makes a tidy bed with his acoustic, Parker, with a name in experimental circles, plays neatly and succinctly around the main melody, with light amplification. The track ending with an astonishingly long and sustained note of reverb that is just perfect.
“Make Me A Pallet” comes from Steve Earle, Somehow he sounds even more barrel-aged than usual, deeper and gruffer than his trademark drawl, the familiar song becoming a delight. Maybe it is infectious, as Rosanne Cash too now sounds older and frailer than memory, as if channeling Mother Maybelle Carter or some such. The elegant backing coming, unsurprisingly, from the reliable guitar of John Leventhal.
If the Jack Lawrence track sounds the closest to the work of the blind maestro himself, it is hardly surprising, he having been Watson’s main performing partner from the 1980’s onward. His take on “Florida Blue” positively ripples along, notes billowing out from under his fingers, pegged in only by some rudimentary bass. Glorious. It is then up to Corey Harris, the blues and reggae man, to use “How Long Blues” to demonstrate how pointless are genres in trying to describe the timelessness of these songs. A blues from 1928, Watson couldn’t care a jot if his repertoire came from blues, folk or bluegrass; it was all just equal pickings, to be filtered through his voice and fingers, emerging simply as Doc.
Of course, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” is here, but here there is revision and revival, at the hands of Ariel Posen. With much of “Amazing Grace” seeming to leak into this solo guitar workout (think a slightly less frenetic Star Spangled Banner from Woodstock), this Canadian guitar slinger is, here at least, without category. Doc certainly don’t done it like this. Picking up that gauntlet, Bill Frisell then appears for the first of his two appearances, this time backing Valerie June, for a slightly unsettling “Handsome Molly,” her banjo and his guitar on different pages, her vocal unconnected to either. Yet it somehow gels, darned if I know how.
With Yasmin Williams up next, one might feel that this second half of the album is all about guitar, having lulled you in with his songs. No tricks here, mind, with “Doc’s Guitar” being a simple enough rendition. Simple, that is, should you have three hands of eight fingers apiece, especially as she adds some sonic structures and guitar percussion all of her own.
Maybe sensing concern, Chris Eldridge, guitarist in the Punch Brothers, slightly reins in his own virtuosity in favor of an acoustic guitar, stand-up bass and voice version of “Little Sadie.” I say slightly, as it still flows impeccably, just avoiding any particular bell or whistle. Lionel Loueke I had to look up. Born in the Central African Republic of Benin, in relative poverty, scholarships took him first to Paris’s American School of Music, thence Berklee and finally the Herbie Hancock Institute of Jazz. Again, quite what Watson would make of his version of “Reuben’s Train” is impossible to know. However, drenched in Afro-jazz and Afro-beat hues, it is a standout, maybe the standout track on the album. With simultaneous streams of picked notes and of others passed through a synthesizer, it makes for a an ear-opening extravaganza.
So what can Marc Ribot do to top that, his reputation for no-holds-barred left-fieldism somewhat notorious? Answer: He strips “The Lost Soul” back onto a quasi-Cab Calloway call and response, a jump blues with some rockabilly guitar that could strip paint. No pressure on Bill Frisell then, but he casually strolls in to close the roll, with an elegiacally elegant solo guitar, “Your Lone Journey.” Of course, he has form at this, transforming structure and melody into his own complex yet gentle calisthenic. I can’t imagine the album ending in any other way.
I do like I Am a Pilgrim, but it would be entirely fair to suggest it a little schizophrenic in approach, mingling, as it does, contemporary homages in Watson’s own back porch style, with more radical interpretations that sound to be as far from his bag as one might stray. So this is probably one more for the listener with a broad palate; purists will balk at some of the offerings, whilst those attracted by the the wilder inspirations may find too much mainstream.
I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson At 100 tracklisting:
- Jerry Douglas – Shady Grove (Traditional cover)
- Dolly Parton – The Last Thing On My Mind (Tom Paxton cover)
- Nora Brown – Am I Born To Die (Charles Wesley hymn)
- Jeff Parker & Matthew Stevens – Alberta (Bob Gibson cover)
- Steve Earle – Make Me A Pallet (Traditional cover)
- Rosanne Cash & John Leventhal – I Am A Pilgrim (Traditional cover)
- Jack Lawrence – Florida Blues (Arthur Smith Trio cover)
- Corey Harris – How Long Blues (Leroy Carr cover)
- Ariel Posen – Will The Circle Be Unbroken (William McEwan cover)
- Valerie June & Bill Frisell – Handsome Molly (Traditional cover)
- Yasmin Williams – Doc’s Guitar (Doc Watson cover)
- Chris Eldridge – Little Sadie (Traditional cover)
- Lionel Loueke – Reuben’s Train (Traditional cover)
- Marc Ribot – The Lost Soul (Doc Watson & His Family cover)
- Bill Frisell – Your Lone Journey (Doc Watson & His Family cover)