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Conversation: Matthew Stevens On A Unique Doc Watson Tribute

The 35th edition of Merlefest wrapped up recently in western North Carolina with even more tributes for and songs connected to Doc Watson than usual, because the late great folk guitarist and songster was born in 1923, 100 years ago. We’ve already told you about the definitive Doc anthology released in 2021 by Craft Recordings with 101 tracks from across his profoundly influential career. Now there’s a new multi-artist tribute album out that’s more creative and provocative than it needed to be.

The easy way to go would have been to round up bluegrass and folk stars from the roster at Merlefest and have them play favorite Doc Watson songs. Instead, Matthew Stevens brought a broader A&R vision to the new tribute album I Am A Pilgrim: Doc Watson at 100.

Matthew Stevens

“I was basically trying to go after people who were friends of mine and whose guitar playing I love and who I thought would do something special,” says Stevens in the conversation presented here. Since Stevens is a celebrated jazz guitar player from New York whose most recent highlight was sharing a Grammy Award for his co-production of Terri Lyne Carrington’s New Standards Vol. 1, he knows some pretty distinctive musicians who aren’t generally part of the roots and folk scene.

“The music that Doc played, and that he's associated with and the tradition that he comes from, is representative of the massive melting pot that is American music,” he says. That also influenced who Stevens, working with his longtime publisher Budde Music and FLi Artists in Berlin, reached out to, including fingerstyle guitarist Yasmin Williams, Benin-born guitarist Lionel Loueke, avant-folk explorer Marc Ribot, Memphis soul blues songwriter Valerie June and bluesman Corey Harris.

Jerry Douglas opens the album, and while the dobro master is obviously a bluegrass star and a veteran of many Doc Watson super jams, he plays “Shady Grove” as a wintry instrumental, letting tone tell a story Doc told with old world lyrics. Then we hear some artists who are more in keeping with Doc’s folk/roots world. Dolly Parton revisits Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind” for the first time, as far as I can tell, since recording it with Porter Wagoner in 1967. Steve Earle sings “Make Me A Pallet,” and Rosanne Cash - with husband John Leventhal - offers “I Am A Pilgrim” with aching purity. Jack Lawrence, Doc’s longtime guitar duet partner, steps up with classic flatpicking on “Florida Blues.”

Another great choice was pulling in New York folk singer and banjo player Nora Brown, who invests “Am I Born To Die” with remarkable soul, especially since she’s not yet out of her teens. Williams’ spider fingers approach to “Doc’s Guitar” is a stunning track with subtle reharmonizations that lift the virtuoso piece into a realm of fine art.

Stevens plays on one of the tracks with the fascinating Chicago guitar player Jeff Parker (Tortoise) as they interpret the lesser known ballad “Alberta” as a harmonious instrumental. He says he flagged that early as a rich tune to interpret. “For Jeff and I, neither of us who sing or are flatpickers in the traditional sense, it offered us a lot of richness in terms of just the melodic and harmonic material to dive into,” he says.

And to close on an elegant note is Bill Frisell, whom Stevens says was the first musician he reached out to after being tasked with producing Doc at 100. They’re friends and colleagues, and Frisell has been painting with Americana colors in his jazz for decades. He’s here twice actually, first with Valerie June on “Handsome Molly” and then on track 15 with the one song Doc has a credit on as a co-writer, the hymn-like “Your Lone Journey,” written with his wife Rosa Lee. For those of us who mourned at just this time of year in 2012 when Doc passed away, it’s a reminder that we’ll never really have to say goodbye.

I Am A Pilgrim has been released to streaming services and Bandcamp, but CD and LP orders are still via overseas distribution at the moment. Domestic distribution of the physical recordings is coming soon, Stevens says.

Craig Havighurst is WMOT's editorial director and host of The String, a weekly interview show airing Mondays at 8 pm, repeating Sundays at 7 am. He also co-hosts The Old Fashioned on Saturdays at 9 am and Tuesdays at 8 pm. Threads and Instagram: @chavighurst. Email: craig@wmot.org