Thursday, November 12, 2009

You had me at "Hello Thar" - Doc Watson and An Afternoons Epiphany

Author's teenage introduction to the music of  Doc Watson triggers seismic shift in his world view.
Music was forever changed for me one afternoon in 1974 when my older cousin tossed me a pair of Koss headphones and said “listen to this.”
I snugged the high quality phones over my ears as the needle contacted the vinyl, and what I heard was unlike anything I’d heard before:

“...Jimmy Driftwood wrote this thing. Hello thar. (laughs) One, two, three…” came the deep country voice. “Do we wanna try a break? Now, your fiddle break comes right after I get back and whoop her brother and her paw and sing a chorus..”

What I was hearing was the studio chatter of Doc Watson that was included on the now legendary “Circle Album.” More formerly known as Will The Circle Be Unbroken, it was one of the first, if not the first recording project bringing together the old time bluegrass legends with one of the “hippie” generation groups – The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

Legendary musicians including Earl Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, and Roy Acuff along with some lesser known, but equally awesome, players such as Vassar Clements, Norman Blake and Doc Watson joined the The NGDB at a Nashville studio for several days in 1971 to make musical history. The result was a three album set that opened an entire generation to bluegrass – including me.
One unusual feature of the album was the inclusion of the crosstalk between musicians captured between takes on an open mike. I'd never encountered this before. Most of it was fairly pedestrian conversation about changing strings or stubborn fiddles resisting tuning or how many basses Junior Huskey owned, but all of it was a fascinating peek behind the curtain. In some ways more revealing about the musicians than the incredible music they recorded that week.
What this particular snippet I was hearing revealed about Doc was that he was just a nice and decidedly unpretentious person. There was a bit of joking with the band and then the producer came over the PA and  asked, “Wanna try one, Doc?”

“Let’s see if we can put down a take. Where’s the harmony at? Right here?”

Then the magic happened. A clear, simple guitar riff kicked it off accompanied by harmonica. A few bars and then the rest of the band comes in with Vassar Clement's brilliant fiddle soaring high over head… ”Along about 1825 I left Tennessee very much alive. And I never would’a got through the Arkansas mud if I hadn’t been a ridin’ that Tennessee Stud…”
For me, everything changed after that. All of the Rock n’ Roll that came before lost most of its significance, and a new direction was set. Doc’s rich voice and his signature guitar riffs were electrifying, and I was from that point forward a folk/bluegrass devotee. For me there is pre-Tennessee Stud and post-Tennessee Stud.

A budding musician with a $40 department store guitar couldn't ask for a better old time bluegrass primer than "Circle." Doc was merely the tip of the iceberg. There's an entire side devoted just to blistering Earl Scruggs banjo tunes; Vassar Clements amazed with Lonesome Fiddle Blues and Orange Blossom Special; Jimmy Martin came through with his perfect "high lonesome" bluegrass tenor on his classics Losin' You, You Don't Know My Mind, Sunny Side of the Mountain, and My Walkin' Shoes. Nashville Brahmans Mabel Carter and Roy Acuff lent authenticity with renditions of Wildwood Flower and Blood on the Highway among others.
Conspicuously absent was the creator and reigning king of Bluegrass: Bill Monroe. He wanted no part of this, as I understand. And this must be understood in context. Those were the waning days of the youth revolution, and Bill felt it was beneath his dignity to participate in a project with "hippies." I've long wondered if he ever regretted that decision. The album became a classic and bolstered or launched the careers of Doc, Vassar, and Norman Blake and immortalized all who participated.. His inclusion would have made a damned near perfect album perfect, I think.
Over the years I’ve owned this album in vinyl, 8 track, cassette, CD, and it’s now in the iPod in my pocket as I write. I've listened to it for literally hundreds of hours, and it's still my favorite.
Music didn't stop there for me, of course. I love many, many styles of music. The musical world is just too rich and varied, and I could never confine myself to only one flavor. But I must admit that I have a visceral reaction when I hear Sally Goodin' well turned on the fiddle or Flint Hill Special on the banjo. I feel it in my DNA. Mountain music just does it for me. Period.
But of all the delights I've gleaned from this album, none have come close to Doc's cuts. There's a power behind his picking that is a rare quantity and that I'm finding extraordinarily difficult to describe. It's like a force of nature. And he carries an authority only due those who are the real thing.
So, I now number myself among the many, many admirers of Doc Watson and waste many hours fruitlessly attempting to bring fourth a sound resembling his when practicing Deep River Blues or Black Mountain Rag - knowing I'll always come up short, but loving every second of the attempt.
You're the man, Doc, you had me at “Hello thar.”

Post Script:
The rest of the afternoon was a revelation as well. My cousin introduced me to Pure Prairie League, Poco, The Eagles, and Jimmy Buffett, among many others, that day. This was at the height of the country rock n' roll groundswell. It was all like manna for me.
And all of this musical enlightenment was helped along in no small part by the fact that we were listening to this on the best audio equipment I'd ever encountered. Readers over forty will recall the abysmal state of typical audio equipment back in the 70s. Most of us were relegated to those phonograph/8 track/am-fm combos with the smoked glass cover and two squeaky speakers. Rich bass response was unknown to the vast majority.
But, Bobby, my cousin, had just graduated college and had invested in some top flight equipment. So when I slipped on those headphones and heard Doc talking, it was of an audio quality I'd never before experienced.

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