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.