Yes, the shiny new stuff is fun to look forward to. But we do well to remember the elders that paved the sonic highways leading to the music we still love today.
Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton are just such pioneering elders. Watson went on to become a legend in the late 50’s early 60s folk scene and his guitar style influenced luminaries as Bob Dylan to Ry Cooder and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. They were part of a wave that brought the austere aesthetic of the hills and plains to the coffee house youch hungry for something “real.”
On May 29 Smithsonian Folkways will give us a chance to hear what those caffeinated kids were experiencing. “Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton” is the title of the upcoming new album of old-time music produced from archival recordings consisting of largely unheard tapes that were recorded at Doc Watsonâ€™s two earliest concerts, presented in New York Cityâ€™s Greenwich Village in 1962. Those shows were among the rare appearances Docâ€™s father-in-law, Appalachian fiddler Gaither Carlton, made outside of North Carolina. The instrumental pieces, including Gaitherâ€™s signature tune â€œDouble File,â€ include intricate musical interactions developed through years of family music-making. On the songs and ballads, Docâ€™s instantly recognizable baritone voice is accompanied by his own guitar and Gaitherâ€™s fiddle, or by the traditional combination of fiddle and banjo. Shortly after these recordings were made, Doc Watson embarked on a career as one of Americaâ€™s premier acoustic guitarists, earning the National Medal of Arts and eight Grammy Awards.
And we’re proud to announce this on Doc Watson’s birthday!
From the presser:
Itâ€™s hard to imagine a time when the brilliant guitar playing and Appalachian roots of Doc Watson werenâ€™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, â€œdiscoveredâ€ 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 Watsonâ€™s first time headlining a show in the city (the previous time heâ€™d played there he was one of two guitarists in Clarence Ashleyâ€™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. Itâ€™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 theyâ€™d been discovering. These recordings show two very different worlds coming together, buoyed by Watsonâ€™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 Lemonâ€™s (a folk club in the West Village that was gone the next week). Rinzler set up the concerts as Watsonâ€™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. â€œToday there are all these great flatpicking guitarists we know about,â€ Siegel says. â€œClarence 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 everyoneâ€™s mind!â€
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. â€œThis is family music with intricate interweaving of fiddle and guitar, or fiddle and banjo,â€ Siegel says. â€œThis 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 thatâ€™s not what the album is about.â€ 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, â€œGaither Carltonâ€™s playing is a lot like his personality. He was very humble and soft-spoken. Now I listen to it again, I see heâ€™s the soul of old-time music. He just brings out the essential quality of that music tradition.â€
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 â€œFiddle it, son!â€ exclamation at one point. â€œThese recordings were made,â€ as Siegel says, â€œat a particular time in Docâ€™s career when heâ€™s just figuring out that people like to hear this old-time music. He couldnâ€™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. Heâ€™s clearly having a real good time.â€