I asked my mentor in bluegrass, and one of the greatest minds in modern folk music Neil V. Rosenberg to say a couple of words about the late Doc Watson. Rosenberg literally wrote the book on bluegrass and his book 'Bluegrass: A History' is considered to be the definitive study of the music, its origins and its interpretations. As a great banjo player, Rosenberg spent his college years picking around the south with whoever would take him. He remembers being a young man and catching a glimpse of Doc Watson in his travels.
I first saw and heard Doc Watson perform at Purdue University in 1964. I'd already heard his recordings, beginning with Ralph Rinzler's North Carolina field recordings of 1960 with the Clarence Ashley Band. Ralph had "rediscovered" Ashley -- one of the singers enshrined by Harry Smith in his Anthology of American Folk Music with songs like "The Cuckoo" and "House Carpenter." They met at a fiddle convention. Ralph asked Clarence -- whom everyone knew as "Tom" -- if he could record him.
Ashley agreed and put together a great little band consisting of a fine old-time fiddler named Fred Price, rhythm guitarist Clint Howard and lead guitarist Doc Watson. In 1961 Folkways released Rinzler's Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's and Ashley appeared with the band in a concert for the Friends of Old Time Music in New York City. They were a hit. Ralph began booking Clarence Ashley and his band at folk music venues.
The Clarence Ashley band brought new meaning to "old time." This wasn't just music from old records, this was a bunch of creative musicians. From the beginning, Doc Watson was the sensation in the band. He not only played guitar, he also played harmonica and banjo, and sang: bass in the quartet and his own solos. His fantastic guitar picking inspired young guitar pickers everywhere. When Ashley played at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, Clarence White was there every night.
Rinzler was also booking Bill Monroe. When Monroe and Ashley shared a two-week booking at the Ash Grove in 1963, Ralph got Doc and Bill to perform the old Monroe Brothers duets on stage nightly. In week two at the coffee house Ashley came down with laryngitis and Doc Watson took over the singing chores with the band. The audiences loved it, and Ashley was jealous. That was it for the Clarence Ashley band! Doc began playing solo.
I drove a couple of hours to Lafayette, Indiana, in March 1964 to hear Doc live. Vanguard was just releasing his first solo LP and everyone was trying to learn his "Black Mountain Rag." I remember a fabulous solo concert. Reviewers described him as "eclectic" but he was playful too. He enjoyed throwing sophisticated licks in around the "traditional" stuff -- I liked that. After the concert he came to a jam session and I had a chance to pick banjo a on few tunes with him. That was special! I'd been working for Ralph Rinzler and Bill Monroe recently so we had a little chat about mutual friends. He was very encouraging to all of us young musicians.
Thanks to Neil for his brilliant recollection. Check out Clarence White doing a tune he learnedfrom Doc.
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