Yasmin Williams – I Am A Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100
On March 3rd, 2023, Doc Watson would have celebrated his 100th birthday. And the 2023 edition of MerleFest, the Americana festival he founded in 1988, took place eight weeks later, marking its 35th year. Unfortunately, about half of the scheduled performances this year were rained out. Life gets teejus, don’t it.
Doc and his soft-spoken genius son, Merle, categorized their music as “traditional plus,” and that’s been the guiding light of MerleFest.
I’m not sure how “traditional plus” morphed into the nebulous term “Americana,” which the more you hear it the less it means, but that’s sort of where we’re at in this post-vinyl world.
Why would anyone want to classify their music as “Americana” in an America which swallows a term like “influencer” and calls music “content”?
Writers don’t write stories, or articles, or poems anymore. They produce “content.” Streamers don’t distribute films or television. They distribute “content.” It’s a tsunami of mediocrity. Even dance, the mother of all the arts, has been reduced to identity messaging. I’m not content with “content.” In the span of my lifetime, meaning has lost all meaning.
The antidote to this foolishness is authenticity. The antidote is to reject the bullshit. The antidote is Doc Watson.
Watson, who was born in Deep Gap, NC in 1923 and left us in 2012, combined a bottomless well of knowledge, appreciation, and understanding of mountain music from the Appalachian chain with an agile, natural-born, other-worldly virtuosity on strings. If a tune had parts for guitar, banjo, fiddle, and mandolin, Doc could play all the parts himself, often simultaneously. In a performance career that spanned four decades plus, he ignited a legacy that will shine like a North Carolina lighthouse for as long as this country is the land of the free.
I Am a Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100 celebrates the humble life and spirit of this musical giant. It makes a strong case for changing “Americana” to “Watsonian,” a genre no longer about beer, boots, commercialism, content, critical theories, gender, instrumentation, intention, jamming, mediocrity, pedigree, race, style, or trucks. “Watsonian” music is about heart, because no one has ever had a bigger, purer, stronger, or more honest one than Arthel Watson’s.
I Am a Pilgrim, which was released in late April, was executive produced by Mitch Greenhill, whose father Manny had been Doc’s manager for years. But the in-the-trenches producer was a remarkable avant-garde guitarist named Matthew Stevens. A Toronto native, 41 years old, graduate of the Berklee College of Music and professor of Jazz Studies there now, Stevens, as a composer, performer, arranger and producer, is one of the most sought-after artists in the guitar universe. His work defies genre boundaries, and that, oddly enough, put him in the perfect position to produce a record that redefines Doc Watson’s impact on not just American music, but the music of the world.
A conventional record producer probably would have looked no further than Nashville for country-tinged Americana stars to record songs for Doc at 100, and Stevens enlisted a few of those names. There’s Dolly Parton, Jerry Douglas, Roseanne Cash, and Steve Earle. But then he looked to alumni of the Big Ears Festival, and to young artists you may have never heard of, and to alternative neighborhoods Nashville barely recognizes, for surprises that make I Am a Pilgrim a very strong candidate for record of the year at the Grammy Awards.
Stevens and fellow alt-guitarist Jeff Parker team up on the traditional blues tune “Alberta,” which Doc Watson recorded 55 years ago. 18 year old banjo phenom Nora Brown recorded “Am I Born to Die?” Canadian virtuoso Ariel Posen recorded “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Lionel Loueke, from the Republic of Benin in West Africa, performs “Reuben’s Train,” a traditional tune Doc recorded in 1964. Big Ears stalwart Marc Ribot and Hungarian-American singer Eszter Balint give us the gut-wrenching 1963 Doc Watson dirge “The Lost Soul.” Chris Eldridge of the Punch Brothers and Infamous Stringdusters performs a clear as a bell “Little Sadie.” Jazz titan Bill Frisell and Tennessee original Valerie June team up for “Handsome Molly,” and then Frisell solos on “Your Lone Journey” in the most moving elegy imaginable to Merle Watson.
No… it’s more than an elegy. “Your Lone Journey” is the only song Doc and his wife Rosa Lee wrote together, and it was first heard on the 1963 Smithsonian Folkways record Doc Watson and His Family. So it was being performed 25 years before Merle Watson’s death. Sung by Doc and Rosa Lee, it was an achingly beautiful mountain memory that felt and sounded centuries old. In later versions by artists like Emmy Lou Harris, the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the Robert Plant / Alison Krauss duo, it was about contemporary voices trying to reach back to the mountains, to a different kind of sadness.
But Bill Frisell takes “Your Lone Journey” on its own lone journey, and if you can tag along, it’s a breathtaking trip. In Doc’s voice, a man is singing to a loved one he has lost, hoping that the one who has passed can hear the singer’s earthly pain. In the Steep Canyon Rangers’ cover, the song is a study in harmony, and they’re hoping you can hear their breaking hearts. But in Bill Frisell’s pure instrumental “Journey,” you become conscious of a Heavenly place where Doc and Merle drop whatever they’re doing to listen and acknowledge this plaintive connection to the Earth they left behind.
They must recognize in Frisell’s tone poem the familiar structure of a tune they used to play, distilled to its eternal essence, broadcast to the cosmos, to the Watson Family, to Ron Miles, to Chick Corea, to Wayne Shorter, to Joe Zawinul, to Ellis Marsalis… and it probably makes them a little homesick.
Frisell isn’t saying “don’t leave us” to the Watsons. He’s saying “don’t forget us.” When we talked before his tour de force performances at Big Ears (March 30 – April 2) this year, Bill said “If you love music, it’s always going to tell you what to do. The weight of what we don’t know, that we’re trying to get to… don’t let that crush you.” And that’s the beautiful enigma of Bill Frisell: words like notes that drop from the sky with an unpretentious clarity that Doc Watson would say “amen” to. It’s your lone journey, and you only do it once.
Producer Stevens told me “I felt that if I got artists performing great songs in a stripped down way, it would be hard to go wrong. For me, Doc’s music represents the cultural and generational melting pot from which it sprang, and it continues to tell the stories of our shared struggles and experiences.
“Some artists on the record had a more direct connection to Doc, or perhaps a more intimate knowledge of his work. But it was important to me to have a group that reflects the musical, cultural, generational and gender diversity of the melting pot to offer renditions of his songs.”
The biggest surprise on I Am a Pilgrim is the tune “Doc’s Guitar” in the hands of Yasmin Williams, the 20-something Virginian who has floored audiences at the Big Ears Festival and elsewhere around the world with her own completely unique method of playing the guitar. “Doc’s Guitar,” on a centenary tribute album to Watson’s birth, could have been given to Tommy Emmanuel, Dan Tyminski, Bryan Sutton, Molly Tuttle, Billy Strings, Norman Blake, Beppe Gambetta, Sierra Hull, Ricky Skaggs, Steve Kaufman… but Matthew Stevens knew none of them could make Doc smile the way Yasmin has.
I saw Doc and Merle Watson play numerous times in the early 1970’s in Cambridge, MA at a place called The Garage, a then-new venue in one of the oldest buildings in Harvard Square. (The engines of the Cambridge / Boston folk music scene were Manny and Mitch Greenhill.) I was in my early 20’s then, but I’d known Doc’s voice for a long time before that, from the Folkways LP I borrowed from the public library. And there was a record he made with Flatt & Scruggs called Strictly Instrumental, with tunes by A.P. Carter, W. C. Handy. and even Bob Wills, that was my intro to flatpickin’ guitar.
But how did Yasmin Williams, who left me speechless in March 2022 at the Big Ears Festival, and who had struck me as achingly shy in her envelope of genius… how did Yasmin encounter Doc Watson’s music.
“I didn’t know who Doc Watson was until two years ago,” she told me when we spoke in mid-May, “until I did a show with Tommy Emmanuel, and he told me about Doc Watson.” And how did Matt Stevens recruit you for this record? “He just emailed and asked if I’d be interested. When I told him yes, I only had four days to learn the tune, figure out how I’d approach it, record it, and get it to him to meet his production schedule. Luckily I realized I could use a pretty traditional tuning, so that made it doable.” When I mentioned how seamlessly she flipped her guitar from vertical to horizontal, she said “That was probably one of the fastest flips I’ve ever done.”
Yasmin wasn’t achingly shy in the least on the phone. We laughed our butts off the whole conversation.
Not familiar with Yasmin or what I’m talking about flipping? “Yasmin Williams, Doc’s Guitar” in a YouTube search will explain everything. Look her up when you need to be amazed. She has been compared to Michael Hedges and Leo Kottke, but Yasmin is quietly more daring than they were at her age, and I think she has more to say than they. It’s laughable (at first) to hear she was introduced to guitar by playing the “Guitar Hero 2” video game, but on reflection, that intro may have not simply opened the door for her but blown the door off its hinges.
When Merle Watson died in a tractor roll-over accident, Yasmin Williams wasn’t even born yet. This past March, Yasmin was on the line-up at MerleFest, along with Tommy Emmanuel. Life is anything but teejus. Life is simply… awesome.
I Am a Pilgrim is a joint project of FLi Artists, formerly Folklore International, and Budde Music, the legendary Berlin-based music publishing, management, and talent agency. Each of its 15 cuts had its own unique path to the record. Matt Stevens suggested some of the tunes to artists he wanted on the record. Other artists came to him with tunes they wanted to record. Each has its own list of production credits, so I’m not going to list them all. But, as a whole, the record is uniformly brilliant. Every one of the 15 cuts has something about it that puts it in the running to be the best piece on the album. Then the next cut plays. Then the next, and you realize half way through that, if one tune was missing, the record wouldn’t be finished.
There’s an aphorism used to illustrate a principle of chaos theory, the branch of mathematics that brings out the laws of order and underlying patterns in systems once thought to be unpredictable, random and disordered, which says that the beating wings of a butterfly in Tennessee can cause a typhoon in Taipei.
Doc Watson was the butterfly, and his music will be charging the atmosphere around the world for generations to come.
He was a pilgrim. As Matt Stevens told me, “I think this album shows how Doc and the songs he played permeated the musical ether and is something that has influenced so many of us, directly or indirectly. It’s always up there to grab on to at any moment.”
With Jack Lawrence, who played for many years with Doc Watson, side-by-side on this album with Yasmin Williams and Bill Frisell and uber-avant-garde guitarists like Jeff Parker and Matt Stevens, and with the age-defying power of Dolly Parton’s voice side-by-side with the young mystery of Nora Brown’s voice, I Am a Pilgrim proves very convincingly that the circle is indeed unbroken.
No more need to ask if it will be unbroken, bye and bye. The circle, the Smoky Mountains, and the music that emanates from them are eternal.
Find more information here: https://www.yasminwilliamsmusic.com/home
Enjoy our previous coverage here: I Know We Should: Yasmin Williams at Cayamo 2023