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The Vanguard Years


The four CDs in the first box set dedicated to the music of Arthel “Doc” Watson cover the period from 1963 to 1971 and find Doc at the height of his abilities. While Watson had made earlier field recordings for folklorist Ralph Rinzler, the Vanguard recordings were his first commercial releases for a national audience. Watson quickly won over folk revivalists by presenting traditional Appalachian sacred and secular tunes, vintage country and brother-duet material, narrative event songs (murder ballads and songs recounting train tragedies), and bluesy new tunes reminiscent of the old songs. His arrangements of fiddle tunes for the guitar showcase his precision and speed. This set balances Doc’s flatpicking, with his syncopated fingerpicking and includes a number of tracks featuring his clawhammer banjo and harmonica. For those who are new to Watson’s repertoire, there are classics such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Deep River Blues,” and “Southbound,” but longtime collectors will find selections from Doc Watson and Son, Home Again, and Good Deal, all out-of-print. Three discs are arranged chronologically and feature performances with Clarence Ashley, Don Stover, Clarence White, Clint Howard, and Fred Price. The fourth CD is comprised entirely of unreleased recordings from a 1968 Boston concert with Doc’s son and partner, Merle, as well as six tracks recorded with Merle Travis (Doc’s son’s namesake) from the 1971 Winfield, Kan., flatpicking championship. The duets with Travis mark the first time the two played together in concert. The only disappointment is the relatively short playing time of the discs (38 to 50 minutes each). Still, The Vanguard Years is a welcome collection of the early career of a living musical treasure. CP