It’s all the Doc Watson a fan could dream of, a head-busting collection of Doc’s music featuring collabs with everybody who is anybody in roots music, including James Cotton, Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt and Scruggs, and Bill Monroe. Merle Watson sits on a bunch on these 101 tracks from Craft Recordings, but a ton of Life’s Work: A Retrospective just focuses on Doc and his impressive technique, from all stages of his life and career.
Check out a blistering exhibition of Watson performing “Tickling the Strings” from a 1963 performance at the Newport Folk Festival. Of course, in Watson’s hands, the strings are not just tickled, but elated to be under his fingertips, and they sing out joyfully as Doc races along them at breakneck speed, even complimenting himself at one point: “Ain’t that pretty?”
Watson is revered as a traditionalist’s traditionalist, but he was willing to investigate and experiment with any genre of music that tickled his fancy. Blues and rock flowed through his hands as easily as the folky stylings he was identified with. “I play traditional plus,” Watson told me in a 2007 interview. “Whatever else I want to play. And you can label it that. Traditional plus is exactly what is.”
Watson said he might do a good ol’ ballad, or a fun song like “The Telephone Girls” from the ’30s, or Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times.” Or he might do a rendition of the Moody Blues 1967 opus ‘“Knights in White Satin,” as chronicled here on a performance at MerleFest in 2001.
Watson loved rock as well, often showcasing that side of his musical palette during “Docabilly” sets at MerleFest. “That’s what they call the record of the only ’50s music I did,” he said. On Docabilly, released in 1995, Watson covers Boudleaux Bryant’s “Bird Dog,” made famous by The Everly Brothers and resurrected for this collection. Watson brings in Marty Stuart on mandolin and Mike Auldridge on lap steel to beef up this breakneck bluegrass version.
But there are plenty more goodies to keep Watson aficionados enthralled. “Rambling Hobo,” the first tune Watson played, features him on banjo, with a brief spoken-word intro on his dad making him his first banjo.
Originally recorded in 1963, Watson’s close vocal harmony with Bill Monroe on “What Would You Give In Exchange For Your Soul” sounds as close as the original family harmony The Monroe Brothers did in 1935.
“Beaumont Rag” from 1964’s Watson and Son, brings in Merle, who had only been playing for about a year, to shadow his dad’s frenetic picking. Their take on “Liza/Lady Be Good” shows off Doc and Merle’s swingy side with a gypsy jazz treatment.
The four-disc set contains one previously unreleased track, “The Precious Jewel,” and is accompanied by an 88-page booklet with photos and notes from co-producer and historian Ted Olson.
Watson brought his music down from the mountains to share with the world, and as this collection ably demonstrates, the world is better for it.