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Doc Watson and David Holt

High Windy Audio

Still performing after most of his contemporaries have succumbed to time or Matlock, Doc Watson is a must-see not because he’s due the homage owed a living legend but because, at age 79, he remains a terrific entertainer. Years ago, when he was nervous about his first solo tour, folklorist Ralph Rinzler told him “to relax and talk to people like they were in his front room.” Watson’s appearances since have been convivial, conversational affairs, overflowing with goodwill and great picking. He has often been accompanied onstage by family and friends, among them banjoist, guitarist, and radio and TV host David Holt. One disc of the lavish new three-CD set Legacy contains a concert recorded in Asheville, N.C., in March 2001 that found Watson and Holt in fine form, trading licks on a medley of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” and “Ragtime Annie” and unfurling the ballad of Otto Wood, a “one-armed bandit” who got his start in crime when he pistol-whipped a Greensboro pawnbroker who sold an heirloom watch before the claim check had expired. Legacy, however, appears on High Windy Audio, a label that specializes in storytelling as well as folk songs, and for once the talk is allowed to upstage the music. Over the remaining discs, songs such as “Deep River Blues” and “Bury Me Beneath the Willow” serve as snatches of musical autobiography, interludes between anecdotes from Watson’s life, from his boyhood in western North Carolina, where his first instrument was the harmonica, to his current international renown as an icon of the flattop guitar. Holt may not be Watson’s match as a singer (few people are), but he is an accomplished scholar of the traditions Watson grew out of and a talented interviewer, able to engage the musician even on the subject of his blindness without seeming intrusive. Watson has often been presented as a bridge figure, spanning the worlds of old-time, bluegrass, folk, blues, country, and, to a certain extent, pop. But he never lets us forget where he came from: a place where instruments sometimes came from Sears Roebuck but were more often built to suit. In 1934, Watson recalls in one monologue, his father made him a banjo, but its groundhog-skin head proved unsatisfactory. One day, he says, “My brother come up through the yard with something in a little sack and a big bucket of water in the other hand.” A little while later, the banjo had a brand-new head, almost clear enough to read through. “Oh, man,” he exclaims, “it had a beautiful sound, too.” Not a bad end for “Granny’s poor old cat.” —Glenn Dixon