Saturday, March 16, 2013

Book Review: Blind But Now I See: Kent Gustavson

Blind But Now I See by Kent Gustavson is a milestone life story of Doc Watson, one of the most key figures in 20th century American folk music. Drawing from interviews of over fifty popular music luminaries such as Mike Seeger, Jack Lawrence, Maria Muldaur, Ben Harper, Michelle Shocked, Warren Haynes, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tom Paxton, John Cohen, Peggy Seeger, Abigail Washburn, Ketch Secor, Marty Stuart, Tony Rice, Pat Donohue, Peter Rowan, Si Kahn, Tommy Emmanuel, Tony Trischka, Guy Clark, Don Rigsby, David Grisman, Alice Gerrard, Edgar Meyer, Guy Davis, Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, Jean Ritchie, Jerry Douglas, Jonathan Byrd, Larry Long, and many more the author paints a flamboyant portrait of Doc Watson, the man and his pedigree, his vocation, his virtuosic musicianship, his intricate connection with his son Merle, and his immeasurable sway on generations of musicians.

From the day Doc Watson stepped off the bus in New York City, the North Carolina music legend changed the world eternally. His power has been documented by presidents and by the heroes of contemporary music. This is the first inclusive biography of Doc Watson, with never before out facts about the American guitar icons existence.

Kent's book is a tremendously touching and informative glance at one of the most charming and significant pickers in American legends. Most folks who know anything about American roots music know Doc's name, and many of these people know a good deal about Doc's terrific musical career over the last 45 years. But very, very few people know the man and his amazing story in the detail that this volume provides.

Kent Gustafson has written a biography that is perceptive and edifying. The reserve gives us Doc Watson the human being a plain yet multifaceted man who has lived a life of tragedy and accomplishment. Doc Watson's vicar made Doc's first banjo from the veil of his grandma's 16 year-old cat. Doc Watson can tell you how many fenceposts he's passed just by the resonance of the rustling grass as he walks through it.

The book offers many revelations, of Ralph Rintzler's role in Doc's early career of how instrumental he was in shaping Doc's image and repertoire. Rintzler was the man who, in many ways, created the persona. Not that Doc wasn't all the things he presented, he was just a whole lot more which Rintzler insisted he keep under veil of secrecy.

The other surprise was Doc's son Merle who accompanied him for nearly twenty years. The paperback shows us Merle as Doc's businessman; his driver, guide, and steer; his connection to the younger cohort, Merle as Doc's eyes and best friend. Almost collectively, those who knew him spoke of him as a saccharine, tender and liberal soul. Merle was gifted, clever, nous, and in the end a tragic figure who possibly carried more of a load than he could bear.

Doc Watson's music is a authentic and integral expression of his life and who he is. This sketchy biography helps realize Doc's music a lot more. These mesmerizing stories describe a life lived with honesty, truthfulness, shingle and adore. Though these stories are spun as simply as a pair of homemade pants, when taken together, they echo with a concord and splendour as rich as any of Doc's best gospel tracks.

Doc Watson is at crossroads. His astonishing span of exposure to and mastery of so many genres and customs allows us to catch a peek of the big picture of American music. This painstakingly researched book, therefore, is not just the story of one Appalachian man, but a well-crafted lens through which we can see and better welcome our musical legacy.

In this book, he is at his strongest when running as a musicologist.  His sections on the importance of Ralph Rinzler in the discovery of Doc Watson on a music collecting tour in the Appalacians and his bringing Doc to New York to introduce him to the folk music world there is particularly appealing and brawny.  He also is at his best when discussing Doc Watson's contributions to American music and his skill on the guitar.

Gustavson makes a particularly strong argument for Watson's ability to blend a variety of genres into a larger vision of what has become known as Americana.  Rinzler realized Watson's strengths as a roots musician, despite the fact he would been in concert electric guitar and making rockabilly music in and around his abode of Deep Gap, NC for more than a decade.

Rinzler urged him to return to acoustic guitar and to play and sing traditional music during his early visits to New York and California, where he met Clarence White.  His genius as a picker, the power and sincerity of his tone as well as his freshness as a blind musician made him an almost immediate sensation.

Doc Watson rode the folk music revitalization to universal fame with Rinzler managing and booking him, all the time belligerent to keep his music focused in the conventional streak  When Watson asserted his liberty by inserting music from a wider body of music, he moved into the larger and more profitable world of American music, assisted by the success of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

Gustavson's use of resultant sources and modern phone interviews to develop a portrait of the folk music world of the 1960's and seventies is fascinating and sturdily developed. Gustavson also finds and develops noteworthy linkages between Doc Watson's innovative creativity and the coming out of contemporary guitar modus operandi.

He establishes this link through recognizing the influences Watson had on Clarence White's picking, which stalwartly influenced Tony Rice during his formative years in California.  White moved towards a more plugged in sound and greater success in his work with Nashville Weat and The Byrds, playing what came to be known as country rock.

Rice. who acknowledges White's impact on him, has turn out to be a major influence on a whole generation of younger acoustic guitar players, many of whom also give major recognition to Doc Watson as an influence on their flat picking fashion.  Doc Watson's ability to stand out in all styles of guitar playing and to enlarge and uphold a loyal following across genres and styles makes him the standout player on guitar over the past 60 years.

The chapter "Traditional Plus" may make this tome worth the price of admission.  In a series of interviews, he uses the voices of others to build up a strapping case for the founders of musical genres (Monroe, Louis Armstrong) establishing a base for the further growth of their genres rather than impressive confines upon them.

Each chapter's end remarks feature a sequence of phone conversations with people connected with Doc Watson that could have shed major light on the subject.  These interviews take place during what appears to have been an orgy of telephone calls most of which took consign from March to June in 2009.

As it stands, however, while this book organizes and presents much of the earlier in print material on the great canopy soloist and musician's life, It's been 50 years since Ralph Rinzler first introduced guitarist Doc Watson to the big world. It's a fitting centenary for the first book a length biography on Doc to emerge. This is a precious, anecdotal work anyone fascinated in Doc's music and life will enjoy reading.

If you're a dedicated Doc Watson fan, you would find this book an appealing read. It is a commemoration of the man through the eyes and ears of those who know him. The detail and the citations of this book are irresistible and welcome. The author is an charming author, and his sourcing is first-rate.

This is a highly informative, mesmerizing biography of the great Doc Watson. It's a page-turner that will keep you up past your bedtime a lot of persistent emotions from this enthralling, extremely deeply researched look keep resonating and will for a long time

Publisher: Blooming Twig Books ♣ Published: April 2010 ♣ ISBN: 978-1-937753-00-9