Album Review: Doc Watson & Gaither Carlton

by Henry Carrigan (@henry.carrigan), Folk Alley

Folk Alley Album Review Doc Watson Gaither Carlton

Certain albums carry you back to moments where you can feel the warm rapport between the musicians and the audience, and where, for a moment at least, you feel as if you’re sitting there on that night when those magical chords were struck or that fiddle run sent chills up spines or moved people out of their seats to clog across the floor. Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings,) a collection of archival recordings of mostly never-before-released tracks, ushers us into the intimacy that Watson and Carlton share as they trade guitar and fiddle and banjo licks over two performances in New York City just as they might have in their family rooms back home in North Carolina.

After folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered Watson playing rockabilly tunes on his electric guitar near his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Rinzler convinced Watson that the world was eager to hear old-time music from Appalachia. In October 1962, Watson and his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, played two concerts over the course of one week in the city: one at the NYU School of Education and the other, one week later, at the club Blind Lemon’s. A young Peter Siegel, who recalls in the liner notes how this album came to be, recorded those evenings, preserving for posterity the rich tones of Watson’s voice and the easy familiarity of two musicians who follow each other’s leads, allowing the notes from their instruments to weave over and around each other.

The album opens with Carlton’s instrumental composition “Double File,” a spirited minor chord reel that features Carlton chasing the central musical theme up and down the fiddle, returning in the refrain to the opening notes, with Watson’s guitar notes playing call and response to Carlton’s fiddle run. Watson lays down a blanket of banjo rolls over which Carlton’s lush fiddle runs on the ballad “Handsome Molly,” which Carlton learned from the blind fiddler G.B. Grayson and which Watson learned from his father. Carlton’s vivacious fiddle chases Watson’s sprightly banjo around the old New Orleans blues song “Corinna,” while “Brown’s Dream” is a good old hoedown instrumental featuring Carlton’s darting and dashing fiddle, accompanied by Watson’s shouted encouragements: “Fiddle it, son.” Watson and Carlton deliver a stately and somber version of the Celtic rounder “Bonaparte’s Retreat,” while Watson captures the longing for home in his plaintive vocals on “The Blue Ridge Mountain Blues.” The album closes with a version of “Groundhog” that features Watson on autoharp, Carlton on fiddle, and Watson’s brother, Arnold, on banjo.

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton is a treasure, giving us a seat at those performances in 1962 that brought Watson’s and Carlton’s music to broader audiences and allowing us to enjoy the lively, beautiful moments of Watson’s and Carlton’s affectionate collaboration.

Doc Watson and Gaither Carlton (Smithsonian Folkways Recordings) is available HERE.

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