Though Doc Watson is rightfully known as one of the most influential guitar players in music history, a new comprehensive box set showcases the late North Carolina legend’s skill as a vocalist, too, revealing a multidimensional singer who could easily move from traditional ballads to folk, country, and blues. Life’s Work: A Retrospective includes 101 songs from Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson spanning seven decades. A native of Deep Gap, North Carolina, who lost his vision as a toddler, Watson died in 2012 at 89.
Highlights from the new collection include a handful of tracks from a scintillating 1970 performance at Cornell University, songs with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band—which brought Watson a new legion of fans—as well as multiple recordings with his son, Merle, and collaborations with Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins, and Bill Monroe. The collection also includes the first song Watson ever recorded, a previously unreleased cover of Roy Acuff’s “The Precious Jewel,” which Garden & Gun is proud to premiere below. A scratchy, raw recording from 1941, the song offers an early glimpse of Watson’s burgeoning genius.
The box set is a must for any Doc Watson fan, as many of these recordings have been scattered across different albums and labels but now exist in one marvelous package. We caught up with Americana great Jim Lauderdale, who shared the stage with Watson multiple times, often at MerleFest, the annual festival Watson started to honor his son, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Listen to “The Precious Jewel” below, and read on for Lauderdale’s thoughts on a few of his favorite tracks from the box set and Watson’s lasting influence.
Life’s Work: A Retrospective is out this Friday, November 12, and available to order here.
“Choosing a few favorite Doc Watson songs is a long process,” Jim Lauderdale says, “because there is a story, memory, feeling—a time or place that pulls you in to the depth of his work and keeps you listening longer and longer.
“‘Tennessee Stud’ and ‘Way Downtown’ with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band from the band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album—these two fantastic cuts are what first really hooked me on Doc as a teenager. This album exposed thousands of people to Doc for the first time and brought an awareness to him, Earl Scruggs, Vassar Clements, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, and brought out a younger generation to see them live. We all owe the members of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band a ton of thanks. Doc made ‘Tennessee Stud,’ which had been recorded by Eddy Arnold and others, the definitive version.
“Another one is ‘Your Long Journey.’ This song by Doc’s wife, Rosa Lee, and sung with her is truly a sublime, spiritual experience. It is achingly beautiful. This one takes me to the porch of their home, where both of their musical families played and played.
“Doc had so many important, iconic songs that he made classics, and ‘Shady Grove’ is probably the most covered. Jerry Garcia sure loved this one. He was one of the many guitar players and artists that were touched by Doc. He revolutionized lead acoustic guitar and influenced a succession of others who created their own styles on the foundation of what Doc built. Clarence White, Tony Rice, countless incredible flat pickers from the last fifty years, Billy Strings—all were influenced by Doc in some way. Every note he played had a fullness to it. It meant something. His voice was the same way, distinct and strong. It’s pretty amazing what this man from Deep Gap, North Carolina, created and the impact he had in the world of music. He left behind a lot for us to discover and enjoy.”
Jim Lauderdale’s new album, Hope, is out now.