My favorite bluegrass musician is Arthel “Doc” Watson. Bluegrass is a form of American roots music that emerged from and was inspired by the music of Appalachia. Its true roots come from the traditional and folk music of the Scottish, Irish, and English. Doc Watson was born and lived his life in the northwestern region of North Carolina that is considered one of the richest areas of folk song in the United States. He was the sixth of nine children, and he lost his vision before his first birthday. Watson always credited his father for instilling in him the belief that being blind did not mean helpless. It was this confidence that helped him throughout his life to pursue his dreams and stand up to the hardships of life.
Dan Miller, the editor and publisher of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, wrote that Doc Watson has “the deepest, most enduring, and most profound influence on the way the acoustic flat top guitar is played as a lead instrument in folk, old-time, and bluegrass music.” As a child, Doc said he always heard his mother and father singing. His earliest musical influences were his family, neighbors, and the local church. At age six, he was given a harmonica and immediately took to it. At age eleven, he was given his first string instrument, a banjo. He began playing professionally in 1953 with the Williams Band. In the 1960s, with the rise of the folk scene, he started to get more notice, especially after 1964 when he partnered with his son, Merle. Doc and Merle performed live, traveled the road, and made records together until Merle’s untimely death at 36 from a tractor accident. Heartbroken over the loss, Doc planned to give up playing but a dream in which Merle spoke to him convinced Doc to continue to play.
Doc Watson received his first Grammy in 1973 and went on to win six more. He was awarded the National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1998. In 2004, he was awarded the Lifetime Achievement Award.
What I know is that Doc’s music always gets my toe tapping and my spirit singing. His music is powerful and authentic. To listen to classic Doc Watson, check out The Best of Doc Watson or The Essential Doc Watson. Both are fine collections that give a solid introduction to Watson’s talent and scope. These are superb starting points for any new fan as well as a great way for seasoned Watson fans to hear their favorites. OWL also owns the more recently released Legacy, a combination of audio biography and discography. In it, Doc shares his thoughts and stories on life interspersed with song.
You can also hear the talents of Doc’s picking on Bill Monroe and Doc Watson, Live Duet Recordings 1963- 1980 Off the Record Volume 2. Bill Monroe is considered the father of bluegrass. Even non-Bluegrass fans may know his most famous song, Blue Moon of Kentucky. The duo team up for an exemplary live bluegrass collection that is sure to get your feet moving.
But don’t stop there! To get your toes really tapping, check out OWL’s wonderful bluegrass music collection. A few of my favorites include:
Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys: Live Recordings 1956- 1969 Off the Record, Volume 1. This collection of live recordings is the companion to the one mentioned above featuring Doc Watson. It includes terrific live performances, jam sessions, and festival workshops with the Bluegrass Boys.
The Essential Flatt & Scruggs: This CD collection is the best introduction to Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. Flatt and Scruggs burst out from Bill Monroe’s legendary Blue Grass Boys to found their own partnership. The liner notes state that “Lester’s solid Tennessee pickin’ and vocalizing and Earl’s dazzling, east-Appalachian three-finger banjo style brought the sound of bluegrass to new heights”.
Earl Scruggs and Friends brings popular artists like Elton John, Sting, Johnny Cash, Don Henley, and more on stage playing with the legendary Scruggs for unforgettable sessions.
The Complete Columbia Stanley Brothers: With Ralph on banjo and Carter on guitar, the Stanley Brothers were another duo that burst forth from Bill Monroe’s world. They developed their own unique style and this collection features some of their best, all recorded at Columbia Studios between 1949 and 1952.
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys: Man of Constant Sorrow. Another giant of bluegrass is Ralph Stanley. David Royko of the Chicago Tribune wrote that Ralph Stanley is “perhaps the most genuine manifestation of traditional Appalachian mountain music of any kind” and that the collection of songs on the Man of Constant Sorrow “represent Ralph, the Clinch Mountain Boys, and bluegrass music at their very best.”
Alison Krauss and Union Station are probably one of the most famous bluegrass bands of recent times as their popularity has transcended the traditional bluegrass audience. Krauss’ voice is hypnotic. She will transport you. My favorite is the aptly titled New Favorite that was released in 2001.
Dolly Parton: The Grass is Blue. Country music is a close cousin to bluegrass. Some of Parton’s music falls more on the country side, but this particular CD is a firm nod by Dolly to her bluegrass roots. I’ve always been a fan of her unique and beautiful voice and it shines on this LP.
Rhonda Vincent and The Rage: Ragin’ Live. This live CD gives listeners a front-row seat for Rhonda Vincent, the recipient of five consecutive Female Vocalist of the Year awards from the International Bluegrass Music Association.
… and the list can go on and on. All of the musicians noted above have many other CDs available from OWL’s collection and through our shared network. In addition, there are so many more incredible bluegrass stars- from back in time to present day- and I encourage you to add a little toe-tapping to your next musical journey!
Ann Marie is the Library Director for the Oliver Wolcott Library.