Classic Americana Albums: Doc & Merle Watson “Two Days in November”

Poppy Records, 1974

This one’s for those of you who like some classic americana picking and it really doesn’t get any better than Doc & Merle Watson. Doc Watson is widely, and rightly, considered one of the finest guitar pickers of his generation and also boasted a terrific voice that just eases its way into a song. Merle Watson, his son, was similarly considered one of the best guitar pickers of his generation but he was also a fine player of banjo and slide guitar. Together they produced some superb albums and “Two Days in November” (see what we did there!) was the fourth of seventeen albums they made together until Merle was tragically killed when a tractor he was driving overturned on an embankment, pinning him beneath it. He was just 36 at the time and who knows what he may have gone on to achieve, such was his talent.

“Two Days in November” was released in 1974, when the duo were producing some of their best music together, and is named after the number of days the album took to record, a quite amazing feat when you consider how long artists will take to produce an album these days. They had originally set aside three days for the recording but felt they’d nailed everything in the two days so decided to take the third day off, allegedly to go fishing. Well, why not?! Produced by the legendary ‘Cowboy’ Jack Clement, the album would go on to win a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording and it really is an outstanding album. Doc Watson plays guitar, harmonica and provides the vocals, Merle Watson plays guitar and banjo and they’re assisted by Kenny Malone (percussion), Chuck Cochran (piano), Joe Allen (bass) and Jim Isbell (drums).

Doc Watson did write original material from time to time but he’s far better known for taking traditional songs and adapting them to his own style and that’s very obvious on this recording. There’s just one Doc Watson original on the album, the closing track, ‘Doc’s Rag’, an instrumental that would become a very popular live number. There are a number of tracks described as “traditional; arranged and adapted by Doc Watson” and one arranged and adapted by Doc & Merle together; this is the excellent ‘Poor Boy Blues’ which gives Merle a chance to show just what a good slide guitar player he is and gives Doc a chance to air his harmonica playing.

Of the other “arranged and adapted by” tracks we have ‘I’m Going Fishing’, very appropriate, since they said that’s what they did with the third recording day they didn’t need. We have a medley of ‘Little Beggar Man/Old Joe Clark’, two coruscating instrumentals that were staples of the duo’s live set and really show off the quality and speed of their playing. Most of us are, rightly, blown away by the dexterity and musicianship of modern players like Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle but the fact remains that Doc & Merle, if they were still with us, would be able to more than hold their own in today’s market. It’s easy to forget just how good they were, but an album like this really holds their talent in the full spotlight and it is a joy to listen to. As if that wasn’t enough we also get ‘Lonesome Moan’, as fine a piece of country blues as you’re ever likely to hear and a clear demonstration of Doc Watson’s influence on UK guitarists like Davy Graham and Bert Jansch. Simply superb.

Of the covers of original songs on the album, the opener ‘Walk on Boy’, written by Mel Tillis and Wayne Shepherd is a great way to get the recording started and a particularly good vehicle for Doc’s voice, which rolls through the song so effortlessly. There’s also a great version of Hank Williams’ ‘Kaw-Liga’ and a cover of Gene MacLellan’s ‘Snowbird’ that makes you realise just what a good, well-written song it is. These are the best of the albums ten tracks but there’s nothing on here that could be dismissed as ‘filler’. As Cowboy Jack observes in his sleeve notes “I believe me and old Doc have cut us a good album this time”.  This album is, I think, one of the best from Doc & Merle Watson. That they managed to produce such an accomplished album in just two days is a real testament to the quality of musicianship on display. Some of these tunes are played at breakneck speed and yet the playing is incredibly accurate and every note rings clear and true. This is roots music of the very highest calibre and very definitely a ‘Classic Americana Album’.

If you’ve never really listened to Doc Watson and don’t know what all the fuss is about, I would urge you to listen to this album. It’s everything that’s good about roots music, pulling in country, folk and blues, with nods to bluegrass and even to rock and roll. Doc and Merle Watson – just about as good as music gets.

About Rick Bayles 350 Articles
Now living the life of a political émigré in rural France and dreaming of the day I'll be able to sing those Cajun lyrics with an authentic accent!
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