Clarence Ashley - vocals, banjo; Doc Watson - vocals, guitar, harmonica; Fred Price - fiddle; Clint Howard - guitar, vocals
Since his passing in 1967, folk and country fans are left wondering if Clarence Ashley recognized the significance of his decision when he tapped Doc Watson to accompany him on a homespun recording session at the dawn of that decade. Ashley had already been performing in traveling medicine shows and recording for over 40 years when Harry Smith's Anthology of American Folk Music made him an unlikely fixture on dorm room turntables. Of course, the college set could have found no better example of true Americana than this itinerant musician and farmer. As the folk revival gained momentum, Ashley was again asked to put his music to tape, and it was then that he made another lasting contribution to American music by enlisting the man who would become one of the most influential flat-pickers of all time.
Doc Watson had been cutting up regional dancehall stages throughout the '50s as an electric guitar player, but his popular debut came by way of his recordings with Ashley as an acoustic hero. This series of albums, along with an appearance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, introduced the world to Watson's nimble picking and rich voice, beginning an illustrious career that has continued into the 21st century.
Preserved here is a historic moment in their collaboration, bringing that old-timey sound to the fabled Ash Grove in Los Angeles. While the appreciation of the attendant audience at this 1963 performance may have been city-slick and politely academic, or perhaps stupefied by whatever controlled substances were making the rounds on line outside, the performance on stage that night was pure as sweet bourbon. 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 haunting murder ballad "Ellen Smith" is a fine example of this interplay. This music lives in their bones, and the blend of sounds is a testament both to the musicians and the tradition of song which they share.
Clarence Ashley would continue to perform until his death, and Doc Watson would go on to inspire generations of folk and bluegrass singers and instrumentalists. But in this recording the listener is granted a rare opportunity to hear an important oral tradition being played out—a torch being passed from a well seasoned performer to his younger counterpart, together bringing a fundamental form of American music to a captivated audience. Historic, indeed.
Written by Alan Bershaw
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