Doc Watson, R.I.P.

Doc Watson, who passed away today at age 89, was among the most authentic, talented, and influential musicians to emerge from the 60s folk music revival.

He was also the reason I play guitar, attempting to flatpick fiddle tunes or pick out a lead note or two on traditional bluegrass and country songs. Of course, I have to get in line behind tens of thousands – if not more – guitarists who would make the same claim.

So read the New York Times story I’ve linked at the top of the post if you are looking for Doc’s history, background, and influence.  This is a personal post.

I was in high school in the early 70s, learning to play guitar and noodling around with music by singer songwriters and their ilk.  Then one day I brought home this funny looking album – Will the Circle Be Unbrokenand my life was changed forever. Here’s how I described that moment in a More to Come… post in 2009:

In fact, I suspect that the first two songs on side two clinched the deal (i.e., hooking me as a life-long lover of this music).  I had heard a bit of the blind singer and guitarist Doc Watson over the previous year or two, but no one – before or since – quite captures the beauty of Doc’s guitar and the wonderfulness of his spirit the way producer William McEuen did on the Circle album.  Side Two opens with Doc doing a terrific version of Tennessee Stud that became a signature piece for him for many years.  Then he follows it with a version of Black Mountain Rag, where Doc flatpicks the old-time fiddle tune on guitar and shares the solo spotlight with master fiddler Vassar Clements.  By the end of that track my jaw had dropped and I was hooked.

I began buying every Doc Watson album I could lay my hands on, and I still have essentially every new album he produced over a career that began in the 1960s and lasted into the second decade of the 21st century. (I didn’t need to buy the compilations or collections, because I had all the originals.) I had Doc as the folkie phenom, Doc and a very young and shy Merle when his son joined him on the road, Doc in Nashville, Doc with Chet, Doc with Dawg. Hell, if Doc played with someone, I had it.

And for a long time, Doc’s rich repertoire of American music was mine. In those pre-internet/YouTube days, I never nailed the great Travis-style picking of Deep River Blues, but it wasn’t for a lack of trying. My picking on Black Mountain Rag has deteriorated some with age, but I sure played that tune enough, moving the needle back time and time again, until I could work through that flashy lick that wraps up the last section of the tune. I learned about the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers, and so many more of the pioneers of American southern/country music from Doc.

I quickly decided I had to have the guitar that Doc played, so I saved up my money, traveled 30 miles out in the country to Wartrace, Tennessee, and bought a G-50 Gallagher guitar – the same model that Doc played on so many of his recordings and live shows. It remains among my most important possessions.

And I also started looking for chances to hear Doc and Merle play live. My first experience – at the Exit/Inn in Nashville in the mid-1970s – remains among my most memorable musical experiences. The place was packed, and I was near the front with some college friends, all clutching our flat picks. To hear that voice and to see the musicianship in its prime was sublime. Over the next four decades I saw Doc perform countless times, with all sorts of musicians.  The last time was just last month, when he made an appearance at Merlefest, the festival he helped found following Merle’s death. The picture below shows Doc with New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush at Merlefest 2012. The respect everyone had for Doc could be seen in Sam’s playing. A monster player who loves to rock and roll, Sam always toned it down and played the traditional licks that worked with Doc’s style and sensibilities.

Doc’s music is well documented on YouTube.  And while often cited for his pioneering work as a flatpicker, Doc was also a terrific finger-picker.  This first video shows a young Doc Watson as he appeared when he first hit the “folk scare” (as he would laughingly call it in later life), playing one of his signature arrangements, the Delmore Brothers’ Deep River Blues.

From there, I’ve posted a video from the early 1980s, before Merle’s death in 1985. Doc and Merle are joined by long-time bassist and companion T. Michael Coleman in John Hurt’s classic Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor.

In a 2002 performance at Merlefest, you get to see Doc the elder statesman, playing with two younger guitar pioneers – Tony Rice and Nickle Creek’s Sean Watkins.  Make sure you stay to the end, to hear Doc play the harmony behind Tony’s lead on the last verse of the fiddle tune Salt Creek.

Although Doc was known as a traditional musician, he was always a supporter of music that he called “tradition plus.” Thus Merlefest became one of the most eclectic festivals around, where you could hear old-time on one stage and Derek Trucks on another. Doc could also hang with some of the players from the newer styles, as seen on this video with David Grisman on the tune EMD.

Finally, Doc always loved gospel music.  His Sunday morning performances at Merlefest with the Nashville Bluegrass Band were legendary. So it seems fitting to end with Doc performing a tune he learned from his grandmother, Down in the Valley to Pray. Ricky Skaggs and Alison Krauss join in – this from the Three Pickers concert.  This tune was the one that Krauss changed the lyrics to and included in the Oh! Brother award-winning film as Down to the River to Pray. As the late Earl Scruggs says at the end of the performance, “Mighty pretty.” It is indeed.

Rest in Peace good Doctor.  You were one of a kind and we were all blessed to have you with us for so long.

More to come…

DJB

By a Neck

There are only three times a year when my wife’s sports knowledge trumps mine: the three times we sit down together to watch horse racing’s Triple Crown.

When the topic’s baseball, basketball, football, hockey – it really doesn’t matter – we can talk about a game but I know that Candice is just being kind in carrying on the conversation. She would much rather discuss food, cooking, the spiritual life, architecture…pick a topic.

But I’m delighted to see her anticipation rise as post time draws near. There’s a good chance I’ll learn something new.

Candice grew up around thoroughbred racing and the sport comes naturally to her. As she wrote in the obituary for her father, Dr. Andrew C. Colando:

While in high school Pop began to race trotters at Yonker’s Raceway in New York on the weekends and his love affair with horse racing began.  He moved on to thoroughbred racing when his father bought some race horses.

 In 1950 he married Irene Holsey and his 58-year love affair with my mother began.  A few years later they moved their young family to Florida seeking a warmer climate, for this young veterinarian didn’t like the cold and did most of his work outside.  This began what our family called “The Great Migration” – Monmouth Park and the Jersey shore in the summers and Gulfstream, Tropical, and Hialeah Parks and Florida in the winters.  It was a good life.

A veterinarian for thoroughbred race horses, Dr. Colando taught his daughter well. He knew quality horses, having once trained the 1951 Kentucky Derby favorite Uncle Miltie. In fact, Life magazine did a photo spread of Uncle Miltie that never ran once the horse was injured. Both photos with this post are from the Life archives, and my mother-in-law has a number of the originals.

This is a long introduction to the story of this post. Yesterday’s Preakness Stakes was certainly one of the most exciting horse races I’ve ever seen. Joe Drape in the New York Times has a great report, which makes you feel you’re riding with the eventual winner, I’ll Have Another, as the horse overtook the favorite Bodemeister.

As Smith and Bodemeister bounded out to an easy lead under leisurely fractions of 1 minute 11.72 seconds for six furlongs, Gutierrez didn’t look too smart.

He was spotting Bodemeister too many lengths — or at least that was what Smith thought. “I had slowed down the pace and had plenty of horse,” Smith said.

Even I’ll Have Another’s trainer, Doug O’Neill, was worried. “I was concerned, but Mario was keeping him in the clear,” he said.

As Bodemeister led the field of 11 into the far turn, Gutierrez and his colt cut inside and got behind Creative Cause, who had been tracking in second place. Still, Bodemeister’s trainer, Bob Baffert, was not worried. He thought Smith was sitting on a monster.

“I felt really good where he was,” Baffert said of Bodemeister. “It looked like he was traveling nicely.”

In an instant, Gutierrez dropped his reins and put his head down to urge on his colt. I’ll Have Another rounded the turn as if fired from a slingshot. When horse and rider hit the quarter pole, I’ll Have Another squared his shoulders and took aim at Bodemeister, who was gliding down the stretch as if on a conveyor belt.

Atop I’ll Have Another, Gutierrez knew something extraordinary was about to happen. He was flush with the feeling that he was merely a passenger on a winged horse.

“No one put him in this race,” he said with a mix of appreciation and disbelief. “He put himself into the race.”

In the stretch, I’ll Have Another was unleashing one ground-gobbling stride after another. The distance between him and Bodemeister was narrowing in a hurry.

But Candice – my astute observer of horse racing – had spotted this in the first turn.  Shortly after the horses broke from the gate, she asked, “Which one is the purple horse?” I answered, “That’s I’ll Have Another.” She said quietly, “He’s having a great ride.”

Mind you, they hadn’t reached the second pole. I’ll Have Another’s amazing stretch run was still to come.

I sometimes hate it when Candice is right, but this time it was fun to see how it all unfolded. We’ll go back to Drape’s report:

The no-name jockey asked. The great horse answered. I’ll Have Another reached Bodemeister’s throat latch two strides before the wire. He was by him on the next one.

And just like that we had a chance at a Triple Crown winner.

Three weeks from now you’ll know where to find us: doing whatever we can to find a television set so we can watch the Belmont. And Candice will, no doubt, give me an early leg up on understanding what I’m seeing.

I’ll Have Another indeed!

More to come…

DJB

Hot Stuff at the Ballpark

Every baseball game has a better than 50-50 chance of showing you something you’ve never seen before. After yesterday afternoon’s “Hot Stuff” game, that’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

Yes, I played hookey from work yesterday afternoon to catch a day game with a friend at Nationals Park.  (Question:  can it be hookey if  you tell your boss and your assistant…and wear blue jeans to work with a Strasburg t-shirt underneath your regular shirt?) When I chose that game from my season ticket pool, I had no idea that Stephen Strasburg would be pitching!

It was a muggy and overcast day, and I arrived just in time to see three Nats stand in left field and let a routine fly ball from the first Padres hitter  fall between them for a “double.” (Where is truth-in-scoring?  That was an error. Just assign it to someone and get over it.)  Jeez, these guys are in first place? But that was just the beginning.

Stephen Strasburg (he of the miniscule ERA and over-powering stuff) looked uncomfortable from the get-go.  He walked around.  He messed with the rosin bag. And when he gave up a couple more “hits” and stood on the mound while a deluge hit the ballpark, he looked like he would prefer to be anyplace else.

We all ran for cover as the rain pelted the field.  The umps – with two men on, two men out, and the count 3-2 – finally called for a rain delay. Strasburg and his teammates headed to the shelter of the dugout. The grounds crew pulled out the tarp.

And just like that, the rain stopped. Eight minutes later, Strasburg was back on the mound.

That was first-time experience #1: shortest rain delay I’ve ever seen.

But Strasburg still looked uncomfortable. And with a 3-2 count, you knew a fastball was coming. It did, it went back out to the outfield as a hit, and just like that the Nationals were down 3-0.  They never recovered, and even though Bryce Harper hit his second major-league home run, it was pretty much a blowout as the Padres took a 6-1 win.

I wrote it off as a fun afternoon, even with the oppressive humidity and the loss. But last night I learn what may have caused Strasburg’s discomfort.

Hot Stuff ointment!

I’ll let CBS Sports pick it up from here:

Washington Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg is known for bringing the heat and he did it again Tuesday in D.C. But it wasn’t a 100 mph fastball – it was a penetrating cream that apparently “got to the wrong place.”

The ace pitcher was roughed up by the light-hitting San Diego Padres and according to manager Davey Johnson, Strasburg wasn’t feeling too great on the mound. That’s because some his Hot Stuff ointment — a cream used by athletes to loosen up — accidentally ended up on the wrong part of the body.

“It was on his shoulder and evidently — I don’t know how it got to where it got, but it was uncomfortable, to say the least,” Johnson laughed.

Strasburg wasn’t laughing. “I’m going to keep that in the clubhouse,” he said when asked about the ointment mishap.

As the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore notes, it’s possible the rain caused the Hot Stuff to trickle down to a part of the body where the ointment is not intended.

First-time experience #2: Star pitcher undone by analgesic ointment.

As Thomas Boswell noted in this morning’s column, the Nationals’ “blight of physical maladies finally reached total absurdity.”  Of course, this being Washington, the whole thing was given a “gate” suffix, and Ointment-gate was officially born. Teammate Michael Morse has been quoted as saying it never happened, but hey…let us have some fun after a loss.

So many years from now, when I’m sitting at the ballpark with a grandson or grand-daughter, I can laugh and tell the story of how a hot-shot star pitcher was done in by Hot Stuff – and I was there to see it!

You can’t make this stuff up.

More to come…

DJB

Remembering Merlefest 2012

A week ago I was sitting under the North Carolina moon listening to Sam Bush, Derek Trucks, and a host of talented musicians at the 25th anniversary of the Americana music festival Merlefest.

Today was back to reality.  At 6:30 this morning I posted the following status on my Facebook page:

What kind of airline doesn’t know where their planes are? Waiting at a United gate for a flight to Chicago that was to leave 10 minutes ago. The gate agents say a plane is being towed from the hangar. I just heard the pilot calling someone asking, “Can you tell me where our plane is? The gate agents don’t seem to know.” Welcome to the Third World.

I made my meetings in Chicago (in spite of the plane in hiding) and came back to DC without incident, but tonight seemed to be a very good time to breathe deeply, take it easy, and reflect on Merlefest 2012.

This year was my fifth Merlefest, and it was – by a good measure – the best one of the five.  As always happens, I heard bands and musicians who were new to me.  I heard old favorites who can still wow a crowd.  And I saw some of the best musicians in the country (not just in this genre) playing together in configurations that surprise and delight.

So here are a few specific memories:

Band that had the best Merlefest:  This would be The Steel Wheels (top of post), who took the crowd by surprise on the Cabin Stage on Thursday evening and didn’t let go until they left town after three strong performances to large and appreciative crowds.

Bittersweet moment: For me, this came when 89-year old Doc Watson – the patriarch of the festival – came on stage Saturday night with long-time collaborators T. Michael Coleman (left of Doc in the picture above) and Sam Bush (on Doc’s right) and other musicians for a celebration.  Doc was clearly having trouble keeping up, but he hung in like a trooper.  The crowd was showering him with love, while Michael and Sam were keeping a kind eye on the good Doctor.  However, when John Cowan sang Don’t That Road Look Rough and Rocky for Doc and his wife Rosa Lee, Doc was visibly moved – which led me and others to shed a tear as well.  There will be future Merlefests when Doc’s no longer around, but they won’t be the same.

Best jazz quintet masquerading as an acoustic string music band: The Punch Brothers (two photos above) are an incredible ensemble – all strong musicians led by the other-worldly Chris Thile. I don’t pretend to understand all they have going on in their music, but I was more impressed live than I expected.  I’ve been among those fans mourning the old Nickel Creek days for Thile, but this is a wonderful band that moves as one. Is there anything they can’t do?

Musician having the most fun:  Claire Lynch, shown above dancing with bassist Mark Schatz.  Claire’s show started with a bang and she seemed to smile through the entire set. The audience responded with great enthusiasm, and her band – a terrific group of musicians – kept the energy going strong all the way through her traditional closing number, The Wabash Cannonball.

Best band reunion: It was great to see the original lineup of Bela Fleck and the Flecktones onstage at Merlefest. Howard Levy was always a strong component of the early Flecktones sound, and he didn’t disappoint in the reunion set.  This was a band that wasn’t focused on the past, but had new material to showcase as well.

Best musical moment: Everyone who saw Friday night’s set of the Sam Bush Band was buzzing about it the rest of the weekend.  I certainly wrote about it late that evening. Sam and the band had a great opening, but when they brought out Derek Trucks, his wife Susan Tedeschi, John Cowan, and Bela Fleck it was magical.  Luckily, there’s a great video of the entire set of three tunes on You Tube.  Take a look at Sam Bush’s face at about 2:06 when Trucks plays an amazing lick.  That’s how everyone felt.

Thanks for the memories, guys!

More to come…

DJB