Doc Watson is indeed “a legend,” as he is introduced at the beginning of this live disc. With its second live Watson release in as many years, Sugar Hill has bookended the extraordinary career of this blind guitarist and singer who turned 79 in March 2002, and continues to tour and record.
The label in 2001 released Live at Gerdes Folk City, which documented Doc’s first solo appearances in New York 40 years earlier, and Round the Table Again captures a recent ensemble performance at Wilkes Community College in North Carolina.
The group is Frosty Morn, which was formed by his late son Merle in the 1970s and toured with Doc and Merle as an opening act. The band used bluegrass instruments but tackled songs from other traditions as well, and Doc, who used to play rockabilly with an electric guitar before being “discovered” by the urban folkies, thought it sounded like fun and joined as the bass voice. The group recently got back together with Merle’s son Richard on guitar joining his grandfather, plus T. Michael Coleman on bass, Bob Lamar Hill on guitar and piano and Joe Smothers on guitar. The four, sans Richard, all take turns on lead vocals and make a mighty fine quartet at times as well.
Table begins with a couple of solo numbers from Doc, “Lynchburg Town” with banjo, and an old minstrel version of “Coo Coo Bird” a capella. He’s then joined by Richard for “Blues Walkin’ Round My Bed,” written by Doc and Merle, then Coleman for an old Blind Boy Fuller number, “She’s So Sweet,” and finally by the rest of the group with Lead Belly’s “On a Monday,” which I remember from Johnny Cash’s 1970 version known as “Stripes.”
The songs, interspersed with stories and jokes from Doc and the band, range all over the map, including Alan Freed’s “Sincerely,” Dylan’s “You Ain’t Going Nowhere,” Mississippi John Hurt’s “C C Rider,” Mance Lipscomb’s “Sugar Babe,” and the Moody Blues’ “Nights in White Satin.” The best are in a three-track run starting with Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues,” Jimmie Rodgers’ “Mean Mama Blues” and the traditional spiritual “Walking in Jerusalem,” with Doc singing lead on the verses and bass on the gorgeous four-part refrains.
Here’s a video of the group playing “Working Man Blues” at MerleFest in 2010.
Doc’s voice isn’t as strong as it once was, particularly unaccompanied as on “Coo Coo Bird,” but his picking remains as fluid and inventive as ever. Frosty Morn as a band isn’t breaking any new ground, but this is clearly a bunch of old friends having a lot of fun, and it’s impossible not to join it in the same spirit. Stick with the final track for an encore of sorts, some strung-together rehearsal moments that include Doc playing and singing snippets of “Folsom Prison Blues” and “Unchained Melody.”
(Sugar Hill, 2002)