Guitar Heroes: New Albums From Doc Watson, Jenks Miller, and Bill Frisell

Doc Watson was a virtuoso, an encyclopedia of traditional Appalachian music, and a living, breathing embodiment of the 1960s folk revival. That is, he was kind of boring. Polite, tasteful, reverent, thoroughly professional, yes—but so are Merchant Ivory movies and Downton Abbey.

Watson, who died last year at the age of 89, is still a towering figure in acoustic folk music. He was born in Deep Gap, N.C., and started playing guitar as a child. (He lost his sight as an infant.) By the ’50s, he was playing electric guitar in a honky-tonk band, but took up acoustic guitar exclusively when the folk revival hit college campuses. Ever since, he’s been widely revered for his honeyed baritone, his skill as a guitarist and banjo player, and his lifelong dedication to preserving old-time mountain music.

But it’s precisely that devotion that makes listening to Watson feel, to me, like a chore. He was a purist and an archivist—the exact opposite of contemporaries like Bill Monroe, Hank Williams, and Howlin’ Wolf, who invented new (and deliberately commercial) forms of music by mixing up the blues, jazz, folk, country, and pop. Watson was authentic, but those guys were fun, precisely because they cared so little for authenticity. (To be fair, Watson was influential; his flatpicking style has replaced Lester Flatt’s thumb- and fingerpicking technique as the standard for bluegrass guitar.)

Sugar Hill’s brand-new two-disc set, The Definitive Doc Watson, collects songs from across Watson’s recording career, which began in 1960 and lasted into the 21st century. The 34 tracks, arranged mostly chronologically, represent Watson’s work for both Vanguard and Sugar Hill, the two labels he recorded for the most. The Definitive Doc Watson is often beautiful, and the guitarist’s technique often jaw-dropping. There are versions of some of Watson’s most familiar songs—“Rye Cove,” “Tennessee Stud,” “Omie Wise,” “Watson’s Blues,” “Black Mountain Rag—so there’s some overlap with the 1995 three-disc anthology The Vanguard Years, but the Sugar Hill selections from the last 20 years of Watson’s career distinguish this new set.

It’s not the most fun you can have, and it hasn’t changed my opinion of Watson as a stiff. But as a historical document or reference source, The Definitive Doc Watson is invaluable; it’s pretty essential for anyone with a serious interest in Appalachian folk music. (A third collection, 2002’s Grammy-winning three-disc Legacy set, features interviews, casual recordings, and a full live set—it’s also necessary for a complete view of Watson.)

Jenks Miller, another North Carolina guitarist, won’t get many comparisons to Watson. Miller, who also plays in the drone-metal band Horseback and the alt-country group Mount Moriah, will release his first solo album, Spirit Signal, on Northern Spy Records in a few weeks.

Spirit Signal is an accomplished but familiar contemporary guitar album, influenced by John Fahey, Bill Frisell, Sandy Bull, and Dylan Carlson. Much of the album is disposable—who needs another two-minute interlude of feedback like “By the Haw”? But the mesmerizing 20-minute album-closing track “Miró,” a distorted, apocalyptic drone accompanied by otherworldly vocals, indicates that Miller may be onto something; the song fuses noise, drone, and folk into something that, if not entirely original, is weird and noteworthy.

Perhaps the most accomplished American guitar album of the year so far comes from the reliable Frisell, whose new Big Sur (OKeh) is so pretty that it will likely be dismissed as too light and too accessible for serious jazz fans. But the album’s melodic accessibility is deceptive; Big Sur, like the landscape that inspired it, is grand and gorgeous and monumental. (Frisell wrote the album during a 10-day stay there.)

Frisell’s earnest, almost folksy approach has often risked being corny, and on Big Sur he risks more than usual. (He loses on the surf-rock track “The Big One.”) But here, playing with an excellent, string-heavy combo of frequent collaborators (violinist Eyvind Kang, violinist Jenny Scheinman, cellist Hank Roberts, and drummer Rudy Royston), Frisell sounds like he’s reached a pivotal point in his career. His albums have been characterized by a searching quality, and his catalog as a whole is marked by restlessness—here the blues, there country and bluegrass, an album of classic bop, another of John Lennon songs or music inspired by Buster Keaton movies. Big Sur, perhaps because of its ties to a particular place, sounds fixed and rooted; it’s a collection of fully formed songs with a lifetime of experience behind them. Which means, of course, that there’s no telling which direction Frisell will head in next.

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