By the time he died, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson (1923–2012) and his music had traveled all around the world, farther than anyone in the guitarist’s hometown of Stony Fork, North Carolina, could have imagined. Along the way, Watson influenced more people than you and I can count, enough to fill a thousand tribute albums and still have room for more.
That left plenty of space for Mitch Greenhill, Watson’s former manager, to hand select the lineup for I Am a Pilgrim—a star-studded new record celebrating the life and legacy of Watson, who would have turned 100 on March 3 of this year—starting with his choice of producer: Matthew Stevens, a Berklee-educated, Manhattan-based jazz guitarist who’s recorded with modern jazz bassists Esperanza Spalding and Ben Williams. Stevens is the first clue this is going to be an unconventional homage, and from there, all it takes is a short subway ride to fill the album’s 15 tracks, with some choices un-likelier than others.
At the furthest edge, there’s Ariel Posen, who launches into a solo electric take on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” with a blast of slide guitar that’s heavy on tremolo and light on what people used to call folk purity. (For the record, Watson didn’t even own an acoustic guitar when he was discovered by the Smithsonian’s Ralph Rinzler.) Posen is followed by Marc Ribot (guitars) and Eszter Balint (fiddle) on “The Lost Soul,” a rough, discordant take on the grimmest note in Watson’s catalog, covered in a version that sounds like Kurt Weill crossed with Gaither Carlton. Equally unlikely, West African jazz guitarist Lionel Loueke double-tracks himself on electric guitar, playing a fuzz-toned rhythm at the bottom of the neck and a crisp, bright lead at the top, calling on the spirit of thumb piano to bridge Benin and Stony Fork.
Toward the middle of the spectrum, there’s Bill Frisell, who unspools a lovingly haunted “Your Lone Journey,” written following the death of Watson’s son (and occasional musical partner), Merle Watson, before returning with Valerie June on “Handsome Molly,” a duet where clawhammer banjo and Fender Telecaster move sweetly in and out of sync. Guitarist Michael Daves appears twice too, once as Steve Earle’s fleet-fingered partner on “Make Me a Pallet” and once with Dolly Parton, where Daves dances around the melody on “The Last Thing on My Mind,” a song Parton and Watson performed at Merlefest in 2001.
At the near end, there’s Jerry Douglas’ wistful “Shady Grove,” which perfectly captures the push-pull of loving and losing, of wanting to leave home and wanting to come back; it’s the song Watson used to court his wife, Rosa Lee, and it’s performed here with an astonishing depth of feeling. Yasmin
Williams begins “Doc’s Guitar” straightforwardly enough, hewing close to the original (transcribed on page 50) before transforming it with an intricate, playfully syncopated combination of two-handed tapping and percussive effects.
Finally, in the album’s most conventional choices, Jack Lawrence relives the years he and Watson traveled together on “Florida Blues,” playing the Martin D-18 Watson used to record his solo debut, and Chris Eldridge finds the heartless heart of the murder ballad “Little Sadie,” with a solo that’s equal parts untroubled and unsettling. In any other tribute, these two flatpickers would have been the center, Watson’s truest inheritors—but on I Am a Pilgrim, they’re just one piece of the picture, reminding us how deeply Watson loved all kinds of music, channeling everything he heard into a singular balance of tradition and innovation.
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