When banjo player Clarence Ashley teamed up with guitarist Doc Watson at the dawn of the 1960s, they could hardly have predicted what a profound and long lasting influence their music would have. Ashley, a veteran musician and songwriter who began performing on the medicine show circuit during the 1910s and 1920s, recorded his solo debut in 1929 when he cut "The Cuckoo Bird" and "The House Carpenter" for Columbia. Signing deals with both Columbia (as Clarence Ashley) and Victor (as Tom Ashley), he recorded for both labels until 1933, releasing a wellspring of American ballads, traditional folk and blues in the deep Appalachian style. Retiring from the music business a decade later, Ashley began a truck hauling business with his son, limiting his stage performing to working as a comedian with Charlie Monroe and the Stanley Brothers, but his early songs helped fuel the urban folk revival and inspired many string band instrumentalists when they were reissued in Folkways' "Anthology of American Folk Music" in 1952. While attending the Union Grove Old Time Fiddlers Convention in 1960, Ashley met folk musicologists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle, who encouraged Ashley to record again and facilitated the sessions. It was for these sessions that Ashley recruited the significantly younger Doc Watson to accompany him on guitar. This decision would become a lasting contribution to American music as Watson would become one of the most influential flat-pickers of all time.
With Ashley as a mentor, Watson, who was primarily an electric guitarist in regional rockabilly and country dancehall bands throughout the 1950s, would soon be recognized for his rich voice and as one of the most gifted acoustic guitarists in America. Watson was a true melting pot of music, adept at old time mountain music and traditional folk music, but equally comfortable playing blues, bluegrass, jazz and popular music styles of the era. Watson would thrill record listeners and live audiences alike, with his flat-picking dexterity and a knack for engaging stage banter, a talent Ashley also possessed. This winning combination of talent and personality made the duo one of the shining lights of the folk and blues revivals of the early 1960s. Between 1960 and 1962, Ashley and Watson recorded a series of albums for Folkways (later reissued as a compilation titled The Original Folkways Recordings 1960-1962) that contained a wide variety of classic old-timey folk music and blues that remains a primary inspiration to Americana roots musicians to the present day. Over the course of these classic recordings, one can clearly hear Ashley and Watson progressing forward. Although their collaborations lasted a relatively brief time, they possessed a unique musical chemistry that defied generational limitations and remains vital and fresh to the present day.
This live recording of Ashley and Watson, augmented by fiddler Fred Smith, captures these musicians bringing that special chemistry to the stage of the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Recorded in March of 1963, shortly before Watson would embark on his first solo recording, this is a remarkable testament both to the musicians and the tradition of song, which they share. Watson's guitar is the foundation, providing a warm rhythmic propulsion for Ashley's percolating banjo and Fred Smith's soaring and wheezing fiddle. The recording begins in progress, with the musicians well into "Corrine, Corrine," a traditional number Ashley originally cut back in the early 1930s featuring some fine Southern vocal harmonies. Accommodating a request from the audience, they next perform the ballad, "Maggie Walker Blues," Ashley's variation on "The Girl I Left Behind," the first of many songs from their original Folkways recordings that dominate this set. Following these two warm-up exercises, these musicians begin flexing their muscles on "Ruben's Train," a song that would be recorded by Watson and family at Newport the following year, and "Cumberland Gap," a sizzling instrumental that heads straight into bluegrass territory. Following Ashley's introduction, one of the true highlights of this performance is next with "Little Hillside," a song Ashley penned but unfortunately never got around to recording. A tale of a man about to be hanged, Ashley's rolling banjo accompaniment and vocals are deeply effecting.
At this point in the set, Watson delivers a bluesy arrangement of "Sitting On Top Of The World," featuring his deliciously nuanced finger-picking. Both this, and a cover of Dock Boggs "Country Blues" which follows, displays the manner in which these musicians update classic songs. While Watson has an obvious reverence and respect for these songs, he is compelled to change them to fit his own vision, making them uniquely his own in the process. At a time when authenticity was still perceived as the ultimate accomplishment, these original arrangements are a testament to Watson's forward-thinking approach to old-timey music.
The next two numbers, "God's Gonna Ease My Troubling Mind," another number from the Folkways recordings and the hymn-like "Homesick For Heaven," which Watson would eventually record with Bill Monroe 15 years later, both showcase the engaging vocal harmonies of these musicians, with plenty of instrumental prowess to spare. The vocal harmony focus is taken to a further extreme on the pure gospel of "Amazing Grace," which is essentially an a cappella exercise that encourages audience participation. The recording concludes with Ashley performing a vintage comedy number, "When I Had But Fifty Cents," a song he learned from the Binkley Brothers' Dixie Clodhoppers back in the late-1920s. This number is quite fun and features Watson interjecting delightfully humorous leads to enhance Ashley's comical vocals. Unfortunately the tape stock ran out before the song's conclusion and fades out during Watson's final solo of the set.
Clarence Ashley would continue performing until his death in 1967, and Doc Watson would continue to inspire (and frustrate) generations of aspiring acoustic guitar players right up to the present day. This high quality live recording encapsulates the straightforward simplicity of these gifted musicians at a most special moment in time. Superb musicianship, first-rate harmony singing that is soulful without ever becoming syrupy, and songs that relay the soul of American roots music make this recording an outstanding example of Americana during the peak era of the early-1960s folk and blues revivals.
Written by Alan Bershaw