Inspiring countless bluegrass—and newgrass—artists such as Sam Bush and Billy Strings, as well as rock and roll legends ranging from Jerry Garcia to Slash, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson stands as one of modern music’s most influential figures. Born in 1923 in Deep Gap, North Carolina, and blind since a young age, the flatpicking great, who died in 2012, recorded nearly thirty albums and brought the sounds of traditional mountain music to audiences around the country.
Today, March 3, marks what would have been Watson’s 100th birthday, and to celebrate him, Rosanne Cash and husband John Leventhal are releasing a cover of “I Am a Pilgrim,” a traditional 1800s hymn that became a signature of Watson’s live shows.
Cash fell in love with Watson as a teenager in Nashville, where during one period, he and his son, Merle, played the Exit/In club five nights in a row, with Cash attending each performance. “‘I Am a Pilgrim’ is a song that seems as if it has always existed,” she says. “In fact, I can’t remember a time when I didn’t know this song. It’s part of a tradition that flows through the American bloodstream.”
Garden & Gun is proud to premiere Cash and Leventhal’s version of the song, the title track from an upcoming album honoring Watson’s music and legacy, I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100. The album features new renditions of some of his most beloved recordings from a host of artists, including Dolly Parton, Jerry Douglas, Steve Earle, Valerie June, and Watson’s longtime musical partner Jack Lawrence.
Watson’s birthday will also be celebrated this year at MerleFest (April 27–30), the long-running music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, he founded to honor his son, who died in 1985. On Saturday, April 29, the fest will host a special hundredth birthday jam session featuring the Kruger Brothers, Bush, Douglas, Peter Rowan, and more. Other performers this year include the Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, and Marcus King.
Listen to Cash and Leventhal’s version of “I Am a Pilgrim” below. I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 is out April 28 and available for preorder here.