Bluegrass Guitar Bluegrass Music

Happy 100th Birthday, Doc Watson!

On March 3rd, it was Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. The man left us in 2012, but his amazing legacy has remained with us since then, and with the bluegrass community having such young amazing guitarists as Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Doc’s influence will continue for years to come.

His story is legendary, so I’ll keep it short. You can find a biography on Doc on dozens of internet sources.. Born in 1923 in Stony Fork, North Carolina, his family was full of old-time musicians and singers. He became blind at a very early age, but still learned to handle farm chores as well as learned a number of musical instruments.

His forte, of course, was guitar. He started out professionally playing country and rockabilly guitar with a band in Johnson City, Tennessee. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered him and recorded an album of Doc playing fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar for Folkways Records in 1961. It was the start of a 50-year career as a folk guitar icon.

There isn’t a bluegrass guitarist that hasn’t been influenced by Doc. Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, the list goes on. Each generation of bluegrass guitarists have no problem naming Doc as a favorite influence. Every one of them has at least one Doc Watson album. Even though he never considered himself a bluegrass guitarist, but bluegrass bands held his work in high esteem. When he toured with his son Merle, his grandson Richard, or Jack Lawrence, the duo would often headline festivals that had A-list bluegrass bands.

He loved playing with other musicians, always claiming that he continually learned form jamming with others. A beautiful moment can be found on Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration. Doc jams with a young Michael Cleveland, with bluegrass musicians Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, and Dan Crary looking on. It is a magical moment in the bluegrass world.

There are two albums that never leave my playlist. The first is Doc Watson’s self-titled 1964 release. Raw and minimal, it is how Doc sounded best, just his voice and guitar working together. The other album is Blake & Rice 2. Doc performs on three songs with Norman and Tony that is simple wizardry.

Finally, there was the great performance called Three Pickers, in which Doc performed with Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs. While each performer has a solo or band set, it is when the three of them are together that the best music is laid down. I still love watching the DVD, but here it is on YouTube.

Happy birthday, Doc! I know that you are up there making the Good Lord smile.

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

Missing in Action: The Bill Monroe Docudrama

What ever happened to the making of that Bill Monroe docudrama?

That thought came across my mind a few days ago. If you don’t remember or haven’t ever heard about it, back around 2012, there was in the works a movie that was going to tell the life story of Bill Monroe, based on the book Can’t You Hear Me Callin’ by Richard D. Smith. The film would star Michael Shannon as Monroe, with appearances by Tim Blake Nelson as Lester Flatt and Ricky Skaggs as Uncle Dave Macon. T-Bone Burnett and Ronnie McCoury were picked to head the musical direction, and even Uncle Pen’s fiddle would be featured as an instrument in the soundtrack.

The news was applauded in the bluegrass community, and even a rudimentary trailer was made (of which I cannot find a copy on YouTube or any other website), but just as fast as it was announced, the drawing board disappeared. An article on the Bluegrass Today website in 2019 stated that work was still in progress for the film, but nothing has been heard since from Hollywood.

It seems that a story like Monroe’s is too boring to the masses. That is because very few really know his story. This is a guy who created a style of music that is still viable today, yet was also an adulterer, was prejudiced against younger bluegrass performers (he refused to work on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, which later became one of the best-selling country/bluegrass albums of all time), and had dozens of musicians leave his band for various reasons, but mostly due to his poor payments to them. His relationships, both personal and professional, were the makings of a classic soap opera.

Yet this man is still held in the highest regard in the bluegrass community, like a demigod. I advise anyone to read either the book mentioned above, or one of the many other biographies on Monroe to see what his life was like. Just the story of how his prized Gibson F-5 mandolin was destroyed by an intruder (most likely a past mistress who sought revenge) into a thousand pieces, and the Gibson Guitar factory literally took each toothpick-sized piced and carefully put the instrument back together.

Monroe is just one amazing character from the bluegrass realm that deserves a docudrama made about him. There are so many others whose lives would make a great Hollywood movie:

Doc Watson: He became blind at the age of two, yet he was still able to do chores such as chop wood at his homestead, and tuned pianos on the side. He first played electric guitar in a Western swing band, but was discovered by musicologist Ralph Rinzler, who convinced him to tour the folk circuit playing fiddle tunes on an acoustic guitar. He toured with his son Merle starting in the mid-1960s, and appeared on the above-mentioned NGDB album, which revived his career in the folk and bluegrass communities. His son was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, and he established the world-famous Merlefest music festival two years later. He received seven Grammys, the US National Medal of the Arts, and a doctorate from Berklee College of Music before his death in 2012.

The Carter Family: AP Carter, his wife Sara, and her sister Maybelle (who was married to AP’s brother) began performing together in the mid-1920s. It was their travel to Bristol, Tennessee in 1927 to record for Ralph Peer (who also recorded Jimmie Rodgers at that same session period) that they became legendary. AP would travel the entire Appalachian area to find relevant folk songs that he copyrighted, and the sisters would perform then as a duo, with AP occasionally adding background vocals. Maybelle’s style of “scratch” guitar picking would influence thousands of guitar players in later years. AP’s long time away from home led to Sara having an affair with his cousin, which lead to a 1936 divorce and the dissolving of the band in 1944. Maybelle would continue to perform with her daughters Helen, Anita, and June, would appear on the NGDB album mentioned above, and many of the band’s songs have become staples in bluegrass, country, and Gospel settings.

Dave Evans: An amazing bluegrass singer and banjo player, he performed with a number of popular bands in the 1970s. His life changed dramatically around 1989 when, after an incident involving his son being shot at by some troublemakers, he took the law into his own hands. He was convicted of assault by a court that would not provide him counsel, and served six years of a ten-year sentence. During that time, he gained the respect of his fellow prisoners with his soulful singing and songwriting, and would return to the bluegrass stage upon his release until his death in 2017.

I can think of a few others, such as Roy Lee Centers, Carter Stanley, and Hazel Dickens, that deserve more than just a brief documentary. Hollywood is too much into the cash-cow filmmaking of superhero continuum and fast-and-furious car chasing garage. The docudrama Walk the Line about Johnny Cash was successful enough that it should have motivated more films similar in structure.

I leave you with a clip from a live Dave Evans performance. Dig that voice!

Chew on it and comment.

Bluegrass Music

What Is/Isn’t Bluegrass? The Debate Continues

Last week, the online site Bluegrass Today posted a review of the Watchhouse Band performance at The Ark in Ann Arbor ( This ensemble consists of the duo Mandolin Orange along with two additional acoustic guitarists and an upright bassist. While I am not a huge fan of Mandolin Orange, I do like some of their music, and this set-up allows them to do more eclectic material live.

As expected, a recurring debate on what is/isn’t bluegrass started up in the comments section. The Watchhouse Band does not have a banjo in its lineup, so of course, that brought a lot of traditionalists out commenting that the band was not bluegrass and probably should not be featured in a BT article. Others from the opposite end stated that many established bluegrass bands such as the Osborne Brothers and Doyle Lawson have used non-traditional instruments such as electric bass and drums in their recording for a number of years.

I did post one comment within the debate. I stated that while Mandolin Orange was not a bluegrass band by definition, much of their material and sound does pay homage to bluegrass music and artists. I also stated that BT has widened its coverage by including a Grassicana chart (charting artists/recordings that are on the fringe of bluegrass while having some Americana influence), and that the website The Bluegrass Situation covers only about 10% of traditional bluegrass music. One statement that I said that was taken out of context was that I felt that some “uneducated” music people do not fully understand what traditionalists view as bluegrass and simply lump any acoustic band into the bluegrass format. When I put that word into quotes, I meant that there are a lot of people that may not listen to bluegrass as much as the hard-core bluegrass fans, and thus, do not have such a hardline definition of bluegrass (must have banjo, no drums, no electric bass, no piano, etc.).

Of course, there were a few that took that quoted word out of context, and started an even bigger ball rolling. In short, this is an argument that will never have a happy ending, or an ending period! As I said at the end of my comment, “To each his own, I guess.” There are a lot of “beyond the walls” definitions and influences with bluegrass. Doc Watson played amazing flatpicking guitar doing old-time fiddle tunes. He wasn’t bluegrass by narrow definition, but his playing inspired thousands of bluegrass guitarists, and so many times did he perform with bluegrass bands at bluegrass festivals.

There are so many things to consider when defining bluegrass, but one thing that is definite – there is no definite answer. While there are distinctions that definitely do not fit any bluegrass mold, such as a metal band like Metallica or a rap artist like Eminem, the format of bluegrass has a few basic rules and branches out from those according to individual tastes. Some individuals parallel a long stretch, while other individuals break apart early.

Whether it’s Doc performing solo, or a full band playing, my thought is, does it give you a feeling inside that bluegrass music (by traditional definition) always seems to give you? If so, then perhaps it is bluegrass. Or perhaps one can say, “Can you clog to it?”

Check out this backstage performance of Doc jamming with a very young version of award-winning fiddler Michael Cleveland.

Chew on it and comment.