Look Away and Live & Pickin’ were both recorded in 1978 while Doc (1923-2012) and Merle Watson (1949-1985) were with United Artists. The same label which released earlier in the decade the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken that had a host, Doc Watson included of traditional country folk musicians (Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Jimmy Martin, Merle Travis, Mother Maybelle Carter, Norman Blake) join the young band. Alongside Harry Smith’s Smithsonian collection it remains to this day arguably the most influential, and unspoilt piece of music to come out of country music. The two generations combined to produce music as pure and fresh as mountain dew without a hint of ego by any act.
As for the music here Look Away has the father (vocals, guitar, harmonica) and son (guitar, slide guitar, Dobro) team are aided by T. Michael Coleman (electric bass, harmony vocals), Johnny Gimble (fiddle), Jim Isbell (drums, percussion) and on two cuts ‘Rangement Blues’ and ‘Dixie’ the harmonica of Gove Scrivenor and backing vocalists Marcia Routh, Pebble Daniel and Lisa Silver. The material is an interesting mix. With songs ranging from Bob Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right’ to Eric Von Schmidt’s ‘My Love Come Rolling Down’ plus Fred Rose’s ‘Blues In My Mind’ and Mac McAnally’s ‘It’s A Crazy World’ alongside a bunch of traditional country, blues and gospel fare adapted by Doc, who though blind had the most tender touch on guitar. He continued to perform for audiences well into his 80s —such a masterful flat and finger-picker was he and argued among many as the best of them all. Whether it was folk, blues, country or bluegrass Deep Gap, NC native Doc and Merle were master craftsmen.
Highlights from the first set of songs included not only a stunning version of ‘Don’t Think Twice’, a measured take of the blues drenched ‘My Love…’ and the novel, jazz swing entry ‘You Two Timed Me One Time Too Often’ but a fiddle warmed ‘Blues In My Mind’. Though thoroughly enjoyable the mark made by it being made in Nashville brings a slickness I’m not always too comfortable with. That isn’t to say I don’t rate and was prompted to place on repeat a killer version of ‘God Holds The Future’ (with its great harmonica and some of the finest, sharp as a tack guitar), and there is the rousing southern anthem ‘Dixie’. Performed more or less, a cappella style other than some choice harmonica it is a neat effort.
More in keeping with the Watson’s best work the San Francisco live recording possesses much sparkle and a greater freedom in the picking as the boys nail one song after another, and doesn’t the audience let them know how great the likes of ‘Milk Cow Blues’ and ‘Let The Cocaine Be’ sound. As expected guitar is the main instrument used to support Doc’s vocals banjo is at the forefront on ‘Wild Bill Jones’, while the boys leave one bedazzled by their rapid as a machine gun guitar work on the traditional instrumentals ‘Big Sandy / Leather Britches’. From the world of the pop charts Doc’s gentle singing of the Everly Brothers' hit ‘All I Have To Do Is Dream’ is a fine one, while on getting back to traditional (blues) Doc talks up Merle on John Hurt’s jaunty ‘Got The Blues (Can’t Be Satisfied)’. That hops along at some lick. If not my favourite John Hurt song, I certainly couldn’t have wished for a finer version by the Watsons. Since there is a heap of great slide and acoustic picking, harmonica and vocals to admire. Others of note include a unique, harmonica plied (plus of course some inspired guitar pickin’) version of Acuff’s ‘Streamline Cannonball’; an inspired choice to close with if ever there was.
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