You don’t really need a reason to celebrate Doc Watson’s legacy. He’s one of the most important artists in roots music history, with an influence that spans generations. That’s worth a tip of the hat on any occasion. But with this year marking the 100th anniversary of Watson’s birth, it’s a perfect time to honor Watson’s legacy, and the new LP I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 does so with skill and grace.
I Am a Pilgrim has 15 tracks performed by a roster of artists who performed with or have been influenced by Watson: Jerry Douglas, Dolly Parton, Steve Earle, Valerie June, and Rosanne Cash, to name just a handful. Generally speaking, all the musicians who contributed adhere to the established structure of the standards and Watson originals that comprise the album. But what makes the album such a rewarding listen is the obvious care and work each performer put into their respective song.
Douglas starts things off with an instrumental rendering of “Shady Grove,” offering up a take that highlights the song’s melodic beauty and the artistry that goes into playing it. About midway through the record, Jack Lawrence, who was second guitarist in Watson’s band for decades, performs “Florida Blues,” a track that successfully showcases the innovative techniques Watson employed in translating fiddle tunes to the guitar.
Like Douglas and Lawrence, Parton has a collaborative connection with Watson, having dueted with him on “The Last Thing on My Mind” at MerleFest in 2001. The Tom Paxton-penned song was a single for her in 1967 and a live staple of Watson’s for years. On I Am a Pilgrim, Parton eschews the arrangement from her recording and plays it as Watson did, singing it with warmth and passion.
Cash is entrusted with “I Am a Pilgrim,” a Watson standard that held a great deal of emotional meaning for him. She does right by the hymn and its importance to the Watson story, teaming with her husband John Leventhal for a soulful, subtle performance.
One could go on and on about the different artists and songs on I Am a Pilgrim, from Valerie June and Bill Frisell’s captivating “Handsome Molly” to Yasmin Williams’ gorgeous rendition of “Doc’s Guitar.” There’s a lot to love about I Am a Pilgrim. From start to finish, it’s a strong tribute to one of the all-time greats.
I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 is out April 28 via FLi Records/Budde Music.