Editor’s Note: This article is adapted from a December 13, 2021 article in “Appalachian Places,” a digital magazine published by the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services at East Tennessee State University.
Doc Watson, the legendary Appalachian folksinger whose baritone and guitar virtuosity continues to inspire new generations, would have turned 99 on March 3. A new four-disc retrospective highlighting 101 recordings from Watson’s extensive catalog offers fans and music historians plenty to savor and enjoy as we step into the 12-month period commemorating Doc Watson’s centenary.
Watson, who died in 2012 at the age of 89, lived his entire life in Deep Gap, North Carolina, and regularly brought his music to Johnson City. During the 1950s, before gaining national recognition through the American folk music revival of the 1960s, Watson played electric guitar in Jack Williams’ Johnson-based swing country and western band. City.
Like Watson, the new collection has strong roots in Johnson City. Ted Olson, the producer and curator of the new box set, is professor of Appalachian and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies at ETSU. Olson said his goal was to ensure every period of Watson’s long career was well represented in the collection.
“I wanted to represent his guitar magic, his mastery of the banjo and harmonica, his versatility, his refinement and his passion as a singer,” Olson said. He called the project “a huge repertoire embodying and reflecting the diversity of Doc”.
As a music historian, Olson has received seven Grammy nominations for his work producing and curating several documentary albums of Appalachian music, including complete recordings of the Bristol Sessions of 1927-1928, Johnson City sessions of 1928-1929 and Knoxville sessions of 1929-1930. .
Watson’s early years were spent immersed in the traditional music of her community in the mountains of northwestern North Carolina. Her father led church congregations in hymns, and her mother sang while she worked around the house and cared for her children.
Gospel and string orchestra music was prevalent throughout his close-knit community, but Watson enjoyed and absorbed the music far beyond his rural surroundings. The Watson family connected to popular music through radio and records, both of which were relatively new ways to enjoy music during Watson’s youth.
The new collection explores Watson’s diverse repertoire built on influences from longstanding musical traditions and early 20th century technology. Although Watson himself has said he cut his teeth on traditional Appalachian music, his seven-decade-plus oeuvre exudes and exemplifies influences from multiple genres and presents the image of a man who loved simply all types of music. Watson has won numerous Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Olson, who wrote the extensive liner notes for the new box set, said audiences never really knew what Watson was going to play next. The new collection reflects this quality by showcasing much of his best work as a master storyteller and incredible ballad singer.
The box set contains many ballads that Watson recorded from the early years of his career, songs that became very popular and brought him great fame during the folk music revival years.
As well as highlighting the range of influences that have shaped Watson’s music, the retrospective collection – through interviews with friends, family, fans and musical collaborators – showcases Watson as a person of great character.
“Doc Watson beautifully represented the values and traditions of Appalachia and he took them all over the world,” Olson said. “He was a great ambassador for Appalachia.”
The release of the new collection of Watson’s music last year coincided with a November 13 tribute concert in Watson’s High Country backyard at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. Performers included musicians Jack Lawrence, Wayne Henderson, Jack Hinshelwood, Trevor McKenzie and Mike Compton with the ETSU Old-Time Ramblers. Each participating artist played extensively with Watson and told stories on stage about their experiences with the legendary guitarist.
Many similar respects and appreciations are included in the retrospective album project, which includes an 88-page booklet featuring interviews with a wide range of individuals closely connected to Watson and his music. The booklet also contains track-by-track liner notes from Olson that detail where Doc learned each piece of music and what he had to say about the songs.
Listeners can follow the annotation and learn more about Watson’s diverse repertoire and musical influences while enjoying numerous illustrations and photos.
Leslie Smith is the Executive Assistant at the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Service and is on staff at Appalachian Places. Read his original Doc Watson article, “Can’t Be Put In A Box,” with a video of the recent tribute concert, on AppalachianPlaces.org.