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Sure-Fire Medicine

Doc Watson at Sanders Theater, April 22 Elementary Doctor Watson! Doc Watson, Poppy

By Peter M. Shane

THE BOSTON AREA Friends of Bluegrass and Old-Time Country Music apparently thought that not enough people knew about Doc Watson to warrant selling tickets in advance of the concert. One can hardly blame them for wanting to keep him to themselves. Still, a long line was left outside when Sanders Theater was filled, and those inside saw what more are fast discovering-that Doc Watson and his son Merle, from Deep Gap. North Carolina, play some of the most skillful and exciting authentic bluegrass and country music around.

Doc, now 48, has been playing since he was 13. After years of supporting his family on state disability payments (he has been blind since birth), odd jobs, and guitar playing with local groups, he was "discovered" in the early '60's. He toured alone at first, but teamed up in 1964 with his son Merle who at 22 is now showing a dose of his father's guitar-playing brilliance and an extraordinary talent with the banjo as well.

Doc's style grows naturally from an Appalachian bluegrass tradition. He has mastered not only breathtaking exhibitions of flat-picking, but also a remarkable finger-picking technique, using his thumb to play a moving bass-a style he picked up from Merle Travis (after whom Merle Watson is named). His repertoire relies heavily on traditional ballads, country blues, and love songs, but his performance at Sanders Theater, like his new Elementary Doctor Watson!, included some more modern music which he interpreted just as effectively.

At the concert, three songs which appear on Doc's new album were particularly impressive. "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad," "Freight Train Boogie," and "Summertime." The first, built around a full, expertly phrased vocal rendition, also displays some infectious harmonica playing and fine lead guitar by Merle. Doc's smooth, lively harmonica and his own virtuoso lead work make "Freight Train Boogie" a superb sample of the happily driving energy of country music. "Summertime" testifies to many of the virtues of Doc's style: the simple, straightforward vocal is deeply evocative without being at all maudlin, just as his humor on stage is warm and folksy without seeming corny in the least.

OTHER HIGHLIGHTS of the concert included Merle Travis's "Deep River Blues," which gave Doc a chance to show off his finger-picking expertise. "He Had a Long Chain On," a ballad adapted from a Civil War legend, reemphasized his wide-ranging skills in vocal interpretation and the historical lines running through so much good country and bluegrass music. The Watson's duets on guitar and banjo were spectacular, as was Doc's classic, lightning-fast playing on "Black Mountain Rag." The flawlessly coordinated performances of father and son produced a sound rich enough to have emanated from half a dozen instruments, while unified and clear enough to have come from a single guitar.

Like the concert, Elementary Doctor Watson! includes no chaff. The cuts, all good, run the gamut from Jimmie Rodgers to Tom Paxton to George Gershwin, Doc and Merle infuse Paxton's "The Last Thing on My Mind" with the same honest feeling that they devote to the traditional numbers on which Doc made his start. One of Merle Watson's own compositions. "Interstate Rag," provides a catchy, rhythmic showcase for his agile banjo playing and, again, for his father's mastery of the guitar.

Balance is a key to Doc and Merle Watson's sound-a balance between practiced craftsmanship in playing and an unaffected honesty each time they play, and between deeply felt emotion in the songs and a thoughtful artistic control which eschews the kind of mawkish sentiment to which too much "simple" music falls victim.

Doc's modesty in performing is as unusual as his playing. He confessed during the concert to some nervousness and at least half a dozen times responded "Bless your heart" to the applause for his and Merle's exceptional riffs and to the two standing ovations which succeeded in bringing Doc back for encores. His modesty comes not from a lack of confidence in his skill, but simply from his appreciation for people who like to hear him.

When asked after the concert if he thought his performances made people give up guitar in frustration, the big, friendly guitar-picker from Deep Gap shook his head and said, "Oh, no," but then he added, "They'll just have to work harder." It was a fitting prescription from so capable a "doctor."

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