Doc Watson. If you aren’t familiar with him you can’t consider yourself any kind of expert on American music. He’s simply the most influential acoustic guitarist this side of the Fertile Crescent. Blind at birth, self-taught on guitar, Athel Watson gained the surname Doc because of his ability to fix or doctor almost any object back to life. His only son, Merle, also a superb guitarist, was killed in a tractor accident in 1985. As a memorial, his friends put together the first Merlefest concert in ’88. Since then Merlefest has grown into one of the premier music festivals in the country. The 15th Anniversary Jam CD brings Merlefest to those of us not fortunate enough to attend in person.
Featuring Doc Watson joined by a who’s who of roots musicians, the CD’s 19 cuts span the breadth of great American music. Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Bryan Sutton, Stuart Duncan, Sean Watkins, Pete Wernick, Byron House, Alison Krauss, Sara Watkins, Patty Loveless, Albert Lee, and John Jorgenson all contribute to the musical stew. Large jams, combined with small intimate groupings, gives The 15th Anniversary Jam musical variety and spice. Song choices vary from old rock and roll standards such as “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Tutti Frutti” through jazz classics such as “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Summertime” to traditional fare including “Shady Grove,” “Careless Love,” and “Amazing Grace.”
Executive producers Jim Barrow and B. Townes roped together a top-flight production staff, including Bill Blankenship, Michael Sheehan, Claire Armbuster and Naomi Newman. Audio post-production involved five different engineers in five different studios. The final mastering took place at Airshow Mastering in Boulder, Colorado, where David Glasser had the daunting task of giving the whole mix a final polish. The finished results rival the best you’ll hear on any live concert CD. The recordings preserve the sense of “liveness” along with excellent clarity and natural ambience.
The companion DVD has eight additional selections, and a 5.1 surround sound mix in addition to the two-channel tracks. The surround sound mastering, done by Zapp Labs, nearly makes up for the abominable video quality. The picture is soft, grainy, and only slightly above what you’d expect from a hastily-assembled TV special. The picture is difficult to enjoy on anything larger than a 36″ direct-view monitor. The performances deserve better. Still, Alison Brown group’s “Mambo Banjo,” and longtime Watson duo partner Jack Lawrence’s solo on “Leaving London” make the DVD a winner in spite of its substandard image.
The easiest way to get a copy is from the Merlefest website, merlefest.org, or by calling 800-871-2738. Given the size and scope of Merlefest, I hope this disc is just the first of many from this fine venue. The 15th Anniversary Jam graphically proves that great players with synergistic chemistry can make exceptional music.
This article originally appeared in VG‘s Sep. ’03 issue. All copyrights are by the author and Vintage Guitar magazine. Unauthorized replication or use is strictly prohibited.