Doc Watson Life’s Work: A Retrospective

Life’s Work: A Retrospective creates an audio documentary of Doc Watson’s musical career from his early days to the end of his career. Over 101 tracks presented on four CDs and extensive liner notes, Life’s Work shows the astounding musical range and guitar innovative that made Arthel “Doc” Watson an international star in folk music and bluegrass. Starting with a rare field recording—perhaps the first of Doc’s music to be preserved electronically —on “The Precious Jewel,” the box set guides the listener through a deep sampling of Doc’s broad body of work. 

There’s a bit of Doc’s Les Paul-slinging rockabilly days on “Pharaoh” with the Jack Willians Band before Doc exploded as a folk music superstar. The box set delivers a full range of Doc’s many talents, including his influential fingerstyle guitar on “Windy and Warm.” Add to that his immortal flatpicking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag,” and his acapella vocal on “Talk About Suffering,” which led to the Skaggs and Rice version, and a clear picture of Watson’s immense impact emerges.

Throughout the project, the producers share wonderful musical pairings of Watson with Norman Blake and Tony Rice, Alison Krauss, Bill Monroe, Ricky Skaggs, Lester and Earl, and Chet Atkins. It’s a testament to the power of Doc’s far-reaching musical inspiration and appeal. Inexplicably, however, there’s nothing here from the Newport Folk Festival recordings where Doc and a young Clarence White performed together. It’s probably because the producers were unable to secure the reprint rights to those tracks, but it’s still a glaring omission especially given White’s inclusion in the liner notes.

One highlight here is getting seven consecutive tunes from a legendary concert at Cornell University that gives the compilation a rare sense of continuity and place compared to the individual tune selections, which feel a bit random and disconnected. Those seeking an immersive concert experience should seek out Never The Same Way Once: Live at the Boarding House, a 4-CD collection recorded over consecutive nights in 1974 by Owsley “Bear” Stanley, the Dead’s audio tech, using then state-of-the-art mobile tape recording and studio mics.

And even given Doc Watson’s eternal fount of creativity and inspiration, there are a few real clunkers here. Like the surprising tune selection at Merlefest 2001 with Doc & Co. mangling Deep Purple*s prog-rock classic “Knights in White Satin.” Doc’s singing sounds like he*s wondering how he got bamboozled into singing such an inappropriate tune; but it’s part of the historical record this project seeks to preserve.

In general, Life’s Work is a great package set for people who want a single source for music from every era of Doc Watson’s storied career and his many collaborations with others. There’s nothing new here to speak of. But for a clear, concise view into the legacy of a guitar who never played bluegrass but whose music inspired countless bluegrass musicians, Life’s Work is a must-hear.

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