Our world turns quickly, and while he's a seminal figure in the development of the current 'Americana' musical movement, most modern listeners are more likely to be familiar with Doc Watson's name than with his music.
There's no shortage of Watson material available, but The Essential Doc Watson is as good a starting place as any. A two-disc set focused primarily on his Vanguard years, with a few tracks from more recent recordings on the Sugar Hill label, it includes representative material from a catalog that spans the entire spectrum of early American music.
By current standards, Watson was virtually an anti-star - modest and unassuming, he sang with direct and unaffected ease, as though he were simply sitting on the porch among friends. His guitar and banjo playing seemed equally unforced, though there's no shortage of absolutely dazzling dexterity - blind from an early age, Doc first made a name for himself playing traditional fiddle tunes on guitar with blazing speed and jaw-dropping intricacy.
Recordings included here span the years 1962 to 2005, and Watson himself has only been gone since 2012. Yet the collection is like a window into America's musical past, a simpler time when melody and honesty mattered, and music wasn't quite the commodity it's become. The material is timeless - many of the tunes are traditional, songs passed along orally long before recorded sound, but also included are songs from American icons like A.P. Carter, Jimmy Rodgers, W.C. Handy, both the Delmore Brothers and the Stanley Brothers, and Mississippi John Hurt. Categorization is pointless - it all comes from a time when blues and bluegrass and country, songs of joy and grief, sin and salvation, were all still just branches of folk music, inseparable from the trunk of the tree itself.
As a primer on Americana, this is an essential collection, a gathering of sturdy tunes performed by one of the most influential guitarists of all time, aided on some by the very cream of the crop - on hand are Doc's son, Merle (tragically killed in a tractor roll-over in 1985), as well as Sam Bush, Marty Stuart, Mark O'Connor, Bela Fleck, and Eric Weissberg - names familiar to those with even a passing interest in the genre.
As timeless as it all is, though, there's nothing dry or dusty about the music here. Watson's approach may seem casual, but it's because music was such a part of his daily life - something to be lived and breathed and felt every moment of every day. Home and family, comfort and peace, despair and regret, enough sorrow to fill an ocean - and sometimes just a darn good story - it's all here, resplendent in its unpretentious simplicity, music and life inextricably entwined.
It simply doesn't get any better than this ...