DOC WATSON Southbound (Cisco Music)
Knowing nothing about bluegrass – I have a Jorma Kaukonen album exploring the genre, but that’s it – I approached “Southbound” with some trepidation, expecting a gutbucketful of dull but worthy “Deliverance”-style mountain music. Of course, it’s nothing like that at all. The contemporaneous work of Johnny Cash might be a hackneyed, or just plain wrong, yardstick for comparison, but it’s the closest match in my listening experience, although, perhaps inevitable, Doc Watson, who lost his sight as a baby, lacks the man in black’s dangerous edge.
The duelling guitar instrumentals “Sweet Georgia Brown”, “Nothing To It” and “Nashville Pickin’” are sorta your old-timey equivalent of shredding; you’d have to be pretty hard of heart and stony-eared not to be delighted by them. In his sleevenote, Doc implores “I hope this album won’t lead you folks to thinking I’m forsaking traditional American music, because I’m NOT!”; something of a puzzling comment on the back of an album packed with tunes by The Carter Family, Jimmy Rogers and The Delmore Brothers. Perhaps he’s afraid his audience will be affronted by the crazy pop sound of “The Last Thing On My Mind” – it is 1966, after all – which, like everything here, Watson plays respectfully but with commitment. The cornball sentimentality of “Riddle Song” is affecting in Doc’s hands, and even the outbreak of yodelling during “Never No More Blues” isn’t too frightening.
Warm, woody and wise, it might be a leap to call these unpretentious performances definitive, if only because the durability of the material means that these songs stretch a long way back in time, but it’s fun, nevertheless, and it’s not too hard to hear how this kind of music might’ve influenced the early 70s Grateful Dead.
Cisco Music’s 180 gram vinyl reissue is lovely, with vodka-clear sonics, a flawless pressing and era-appropriate packaging, right down to the record labels. Such attention to detail only makes the company’s recent closure more of a loss to humanity. As the delightfully archaic sleeve note puts it, “reproduced through a stereophonic system, it affords a roundness, clarity, definition, physical presence and natural directionality, so that all awareness vanishes of any intermediary between the listener and the live performance”.