See previously unreleased archival photos, and listen to a preview of a new Smithsonian Folkways album that puts fans in the audience at one of the bluegrass pioneer’s early concerts.
It’s hard to imagine a time when the brilliant guitar playing and Appalachian roots of Doc Watson weren’t a part of the American musical fabric. A famed artist in his day and a continuing influence on American music, Watson happened into the music industry much by accident, “discovered” by noted folklorist Ralph Rinzler in the early 1960s when he was mainly playing rockabilly tunes on the electric guitar near his home in tiny Deep Gap, North Carolina.
Rinzler convinced Watson that audiences around the country were interested in the older music of Appalachia, and the nation soon fell in love with his heartfelt, powerful singing and his inimitable acoustic guitar playing. He inspired countless people to pick up the guitar and learn to flatpick the old melodies, much of this encouragement coming in person after performances. It was at the first of these shows in New York, really Watson’s first time headlining a show in the city (the previous time he’d played there he was one of two guitarists in Clarence Ashley’s band), that we get to hear this old music played by Watson and his fiddling father-in-law, Gaither Carlton.
These live recordings from 1962 are to be released May 29, 2020, by Smithsonian Folkways as Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton on CD, digital, and vinyl. Most of these tracks have never been released before, and the recordings capture two masters at the height of their power, reveling in an audience that was there to listen, not just to drink and dance. It’s a moment where the rural Appalachian world of North Carolina came face to face with the urban New York world of young people desperate to learn folk music and to learn more about the Southern traditions they’d been discovering. These recordings show two very different worlds coming together, buoyed by Watson’s charming personality and his willingness to teach all who would learn.
The recordings on Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton come from two concerts in New York City in October 1962; one concert at the NYU School of Education and the other at Blind Lemon’s (a folk club in the West Village that was gone the next week). Rinzler set up the concerts as Watson’s debut in New York, but it was a young Peter Siegel, barely 18 years old, who recorded both concerts. Siegel still lives in New York, and went on to many great projects in the years after this, founding the Nonesuch Explorer Series, producing more music with Watson, becoming head of A&R for Polydor, and later producing music with Paul Siebel, Tom Paxton, Roy Buchanan, and others.
But during those wintery nights in New York in 1962 he was just a teenager with a recording device, and he captured something truly special. “Today there are all these great flatpicking guitarists we know about,” Siegel says. “Clarence White, Tony Rice, all kinds of people. Billy Strings too now.
At that time, nobody had ever heard a folk guitar player play like that! In folk music, the guitar was an accompanying instrument, which was usually strummed in a specific way. So when Doc showed up, it blew my mind. It blew everyone’s mind!”
The music that Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton played on these recordings is not the powerhouse virtuosic guitar style Watson would later be known for; indeed he actually plays banjo on half the tracks. “This is family music with intricate interweaving of fiddle and guitar, or fiddle and banjo,” Siegel says. “This is the music that Doc and Gaither had been playing at home for the last twenty years. On this record you can hear the older stuff, you can hear flashes of brilliant guitar playing, but that’s not what the album is about.” Gaither Carlton was himself a fiddler of great power. His stately playing reflects the Scottish and Irish roots of the music, and he knew seminal old-time fiddlers from the 78rpm era, such as fiddler GB Grayson of Grayson & Whitter.
Whereas Watson grew up in a household with a record player and access to the radio, later basing much of his music on songs he discovered over the airwaves, Carlton came from an older world and learned his music from his family and friends directly in his region of Appalachia. As Siegel says, “Gaither Carlton’s playing is a lot like his personality. He was very humble and soft-spoken. Now I listen to it again, I see he’s the soul of old-time music. He just brings out the essential quality of that music tradition.”
You can hear the love from the audiences at these concerts, and you can hear the love between Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton as they play, Watson encouraging Carlton with a “Fiddle it, son!” exclamation at one point. “These recordings were made,” as Siegel says, “at a particular time in Doc’s career when he’s just figuring out that people like to hear this old-time music. He couldn’t get arrested with this music in his hometown.
If you listen to parts of this album, you can hear his surprise and happiness that the audience is responding in such a way. He’s clearly having a real good time.”