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Memories of the late bluegrass legend Doc Watson

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Posted: Saturday, June 9, 2012 12:00 am

I've been attending music concerts for more than 50 years. I was too young to fully appreciate my first, Little Richard in Los Angeles. But even if I'm only lukewarm on the artist or the venue, I've always enjoyed the concert experience. If only I had been able to see Elvis! He was on stage in Las Vegas long ago when I was passing through town. To my disappointment, I learned that no amount of money was enough to buy a ticket.

Somewhat surprisingly, one of the most low-key concerts I ever saw was also one of the best. Many years ago, I saw the late Doc Watson at San Francisco's Great American Hall. Peter Rowan accompanied the bluegrass legend.

The Hall's 100-year-old, 5,000-square-foot auditorium with its ornate balconies, soaring marble columns and elaborate ceiling frescoes was a wonderful place to showcase Watson's multiple talents — vocalist, flat picking/finger picking guitarist and, best of all, American storyteller.

Jed Hilly, executive director of the American Music Association, said that Watson "played different styles of American roots music. He played traditional country, he played what would be traditional folk, he played what was traditional bluegrass, he played gospel. All those elements sort of interwoven ... Nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson's appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world."

Watson's career began when he was 40 years old. In 1962, Watson and some of his musician neighbors left their Blue Ridge Mountains homes to perform in Los Angeles at the Ash Grove folk club. Years later, looking back on his round-trip journey taken in a tiny station wagon, Watson realized what "a big old country this is."

Although his professional career started late in his life, Watson's father instilled the love of music in his son from boyhood. Every Christmas, Arthel (later nicknamed Doc by a local disc jockey) received a new harmonica. When Watson turned 11, his father made him a banjo with the head formed from the skin of the family's recently deceased cat.

Watson got his first guitar at 13. By then, he was well familiar with Grand Ole Opry music greats Jimmy Rodgers and the Carter Family.

Before his death last week at age 88, Watson had recorded more than 50 albums and won seven Grammy awards. Watson received a National Medal of Arts in 1997 and, in 2004, a Recording Academy lifetime achievement award.

I own a great many of Watson's albums. But the one I recommend to you, especially with Father's Day on June 17, is a 1994 release titled "Daddies Sing Good Night." Although Watson only has one track on the CD, "Prairie Lullaby," the album is a touching but not overly sentimental collection of songs inspired by the artists' children. Musical magic — soothing baritones and lilting tenors — is the best way to describe "Daddies Sing Good Night."

Among my favorites are Tim and Mollie O'Brien's "Hush While the Little Ones Sleep," Michael Doucet's Cajun tribute to his son Ezra, Peter Rowan's haunting "On The Wings Of Horses," and Leon Redbone's typically old-timey "Russian Lullaby." Townes Van Zandt and dobro genius Jerry Douglas turn in beautiful performances, too.

"Daddy's Sing Good Night" is an album you'll enjoy anytime, anywhere.

Joe Guzzardi retired from the Lodi Unified School District in 2008. Contact him at guzzjoe@yahoo.com.

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