Ka-Ching…With Twang – Doc Watson and Willie Nelson

Two big anniversaries ending in 0 happen this spring. Doc Watson would have turned 100 in March, while Willie Nelson celebrated his four-score and ten with a party at LA’s Hollywood Bowl. Later this year, an anthology of Willie’s lyrics will be published but before then there’s One Night in Texas, a recording of a concert made in April 2022 and released a year later.

The tribute was put together by Bruce Robison, the Texan who wrote Travelin’ Soldier for the Chicks, and mixes well-known Willie tracks with deep cuts. Robison himself takes two numbers: Last Thing I Needed First Thing This Morning and (How Will I Know) I’m Falling In Love Again. He has a songwriter’s voice, nervous and quavering but doing the job transferring the emotion of a narrator getting to grips with romance.

Margo Price is often spotted at Farm Aid, the festival put on by Willie for America’s farmers, and she covers Shotgun Willie. The old standard Night Life is sung by Sheryl Crow with ineffable elegance, while Steve Earle – who named his son Justin Townes and was a disciple of Townes van Zandt – delivers the durable Pancho and Lefty, a song written by Townes which Willie took to number one with Merle Haggard. The performer finishes with a ‘happy birthday Willie, see you when I get there, Townes!’

Vincent Neil Emerson’s faithful interpretation of Bloody Mary Morning kicks things off, with Robert Earl Keen covering Pick Up The Tempo and Ray Wylie Hubbard giving Whisky River (‘take my mind!!’) some welly. Nathaniel Rateliff wraps his pipes around Willie’s two evergreens, Crazy and Blue Eyes Crying In The Rain, the latter to enormous cheers and featuring many performers on backing vocals. Nashville-based singer/songwriter Phosphorescent pays homage with The Party’s Over (‘let’s call it a night’).

Emily Gimble is the grand-daughter of Willie’s old sideman Johnny, and she plays honky-tonk piano on the instrumental Down Yonder. The nine- or ten-piece Shinyribs, led by Kevin Russell, do both My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys and I Gotta Get Drunk, with crowd answering Kevin’s introductory ‘weeeeell’s. There’s so much bonhomie in the recording, which surely got plenty of listens in the aftermath of Willie’s birthday.

I Am A Pilgrim marks the centenary of Doc Watson’s birth and it also has plenty of star wattage. Doc wrote Shady Grove, here given the dobro treatment by Jerry Douglas, while Rosanne Cash takes the hugely spiritual title track. The song, which Willie has also interpreted, sounds like one that her dad included on his famous list of country songs.

Dolly Parton covers The Last Thing on My Mind, the Tom Paxton folk standard, and Ariel Posen leads a blues-guitar rendition of the Opry standard Will The Circle Be Unbroken, which Watson took into the country album charts and indeed the pop charts in 1972 – it was a number eight hit – alongside The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

I loved the other instrumental tracks: Alberta, a guitar duet played here by Matthew Stevens and Jeff Parker; Florida Blues, where Jack Lawrence’s picking is effortless; Reuben’s Train, where Lionel Loueke’s guitar reminds me of the desert blues of Tinariwen; and the aptly titled Doc’s Guitar, where it’s the turn of Yasmin Williams to dazzle with her gentle playing. I’m not sure if it’s sideways on or, as pictures show us, facing upwards on her lap. She is my new discovery and I can’t wait to dip into her 2021 album Urban Driftwood.

A lot of the collection is new to me. Corey Harris laments a How Long Blues and Chris Eldridge sings of Little Sadie on the murder ballad which has been interpreted by both Bob Dylan (on Self Portrait) and Johnny Cash (on the Folsom Prison Blues album as Cocaine Blues). The Lost Soul is a song of Judgment Day, sung as a pathos-laden duet by Marc Ribot and Eszter Balint.

Am I Born To Die is led by a drone that underscores Nora Brown’s fluttering vocal. Steve Earle appears here too, putting his grumble to good use on Make Me A Pallet, in which he seems typecast as a troubadour seeking a bed for the night. Handsome Molly is a spacious duet between Valerie June and jazz guitar wizard Bill Frisell; the latter’s take on Your Lone Journey closes the album.

As an interpreter and writer of American music, Doc Watson deserves to not be forgotten, even though he might lack the affiliation with marijuana or the popularity of Willie Nelson. As we move further into an era where the past is a few clicks away, we should remember the figures who worked in an analogue world.

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