Words by Sean Moeller, Illustration by Johnnie Cluney, Recording mastered by Michael Saltsman and produced by Peter Lockhart
Impediments, pain, suffering and sorrow come in all shapes and sizes. Doc Watson knew and felt many of them. He was never the most fortunate man. He was unlucky in many ways, but he never once allowed any of it to cause him any lasting grief. He would never have considered himself any worse off, any less lucky or more unfortunate than the next guy. He got his fair share and then some, as blindness and abject poverty were significant problems for him throughout his life, but through his voice and his revolutionary flat-picking style of guitar playing, he dealt with it all in what was really the only way he could. He made his own mercy and he created his own happiness. It was through songs of depressing circumstances - slugging and slogging away for an ungrateful boss, bringing home too little money to feed the wife and kids, serving time in the jailhouse, dealing with death and with a difficult close second, living - that Watson was able to rise above the mess of his time.
The performances heard here come from two of the oldest extant recordings made at the famed Los Angeles venue, the Ash Grove, in the early 1960s. The earliest show, with Watson joining Clarence Ashley on stage, was on Doc's first ever swing through the western part of the country and a real turning point in his musical career. These shows started him on the way toward greater financial liberty as he was finally able to earn a living with his unparalleled musical talents and not have to rely on his government disability payments to feed his family. While the majority of Watson's songs and those old-timey numbers that he chose to perform were works of the imagination - stories of extreme heartache and tough times - there was always plenty of his own troubles wandering through the narrative. He was chest deep in the plotlines, sometimes in over his head, but always able to come out of it.
There's wallowing in your troubles and then there's what Watson always did with them. He always managed to find incredible beauty in the darkest moments - those which were essentially going to be what convinced someone else of a man's truest character. He was a poor man, but he was a happy man. He had been through the worst and he knew that somehow, the worst was probably still yet to come and come what may. He sings about the "same old problems," as he describes it between songs during his April 13, 1965 set at the Ash Grove, and listening now - almost 50 years later - we see what he means. They are the same old problems of people gambling with their lives, coming up short and making things better with whiskey and love and yet, there's no one who can explain it all the way we expected Watson would be able to.