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'Fresh Air' Celebrates July 4 With The Late Flat-Picking Guitar Player Doc Watson

Watson, who died in 2012, was a pioneering bluegrass, country and folk guitarist and singer who changed the way people thought about mountain music. Originally broadcast in 1988 and 1989.


Other segments from the episode on July 4, 2018

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, July 4, 2018: Interview with Doc Watson; Review of music by Jim James, Iceag, Parliament.


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this Fourth of July, we're going to hear some great American music. We're going deep in our archive for the show to feature Doc Watson, who was one of America's most revered folk musicians. In his prime, he was considered the finest flatpicker in the U.S. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who discovered him, said Watson is singlehandedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar performance. His flatpicking style has no precedent in earlier country music.

Watson was born in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. When he was about 1 year old, an eye infection left him blind. For about 15 years, he toured and performed with his son, Merle. In 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Watson organized an annual music festival in his honor in North Carolina known as MerleFest. Doc Watson died in 2012 at the age of 89.

We're going to hear the interview I recorded with Doc Watson in 1988, but we'll start with a couple of songs from the concert he recorded on our show in 1989. He brought with him guitarist Jack Lawrence, who was his longtime music partner.


GROSS: I want to welcome both of you to FRESH AIR. And, Doc Watson, can I ask you to introduce the first song?

DOC WATSON: Thank you, Terry. I think we'll do one that Merle and I - my son, Merle, and I learned from John Hurt. A good old tune, called, "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor."

(Playing guitar).

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low? And then maybe my good gal, she won't know. I'm going up the country through that sleet and snow. Going up the country through that sleet and snow. Yes, I'm going up the country through that sleet and snow. Ain't no telling just how far I'll go. Getting my breakfast here, and my dinner in Tennessee. Get breakfast here, and dinner in Tennessee. Going to get my breakfast here, my dinner in Tennessee. Told you I was coming so you better look for me. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low? And then maybe my good gal, she won't know. What do you think about it, Jack?

JACK LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Yeah. I like that note you've got there.

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Well, you know that I can't lay down on your bed. Now, honey, I can't lay down on your bed. No, baby, I can't lay down across that pretty bed 'cause my good woman, she might kill me dead. And don't you let my good gal catch you here. Hey. Don't you let my good gal catch you here. If you do, she may shoot you. She might cut and stub you, too. Ain't no telling what that gal might do. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low? And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) The way I've been sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. The way I've been sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. Yeah. The way I've been a'sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. I think I'll turn and try sleeping on my side. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down, make it soft and low? And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

Let's play some country counterpoints, son.

(Playing guitar).

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, make it over close behind that door. Make it where your good man will never go.


LAWRENCE: All right.

WATSON: Guitar straps will squeak, Jack.

LAWRENCE: Yes, they will.

WATSON: That's the way it works. Here's a little tune about an old boy that - excuse me - decided he's going to leave home and learn to travel. And he found a pretty little girl and got married and got two for the price of one. (Laughter) I'll let the song tell you the rest of the tale. It's called, "Give Me Back My 15 Cents."

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) I left my home in Tennessee, and I thought I'd learned to travel. But then I met with a pretty little gal, and soon we played the devil. I loved that gal, and she loved me, and I thought we'd live together. But then we tied that fatal knot, and now I'm gone forever. Give me back my 15 cents. Give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to mammy. Yeah. Let me hear your opinion.

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Suey. (Snorting).

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) 'Twas 15 cents to the preacher man, and a dollar for the paper. Then dear old mother-in-law moved in. And, Lordy, what a keeper. I fiddled a tune for her one day, and she called me a joker. Then that old sound got mad at me and hit me with the poker. Give me back my 15 cents. Give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to mammy.

(Playing guitar).

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) I worked in town, and I worked on the farm, but there was no way to suit 'em. They were both so dad-burn mean to be, somebody ought to shoot 'em. I'm tired of looking at my mother-in-law. I'd like to see my granny. Going to leave the state of Arkansas and go back home to mammy. Give me back my 15 cents. Give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to mammy.


GROSS: That's Doc Watson singing and playing guitar along with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. We'll hear more of this FRESH AIR concert later. The year before that concert, Watson joined us for an interview. We talked first about how being blind affected his life.


GROSS: I've read you say that if you weren't blind, you don't think you would have ever gone on the road, and I wasn't sure how to interpret that.

WATSON: I wouldn't have because of exactly what I was talking about. I would rather have a job where I could go home at night. I would've played music, of course. There's no doubt about that. Because I think you're born with music or whatever talent that comes out front in your blood, as the old timers used to say, and you just couldn't help but pick first time a guitar came along. You'd learn it. But it would've been a hobby. I'd like to have been a carpenter, or an electrician, or some kind of work like that. Or a mechanic, if I could see. I can do rough carpenter work, anyway.

GROSS: Didn't your father make the first banjo that you played?

WATSON: Yeah. He did. That was in the summer of 1934. Made my first little stringed instrument. I had a harmonica before that. But Dad showed me a few of the old-time frailing or clawhammer banjo-style tunes. And one day, he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, Son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. Some of these days, we'll get you a better one. He said, might help you get through the world.

GROSS: And what was it like for you the first time you got the banjo into your hands? What did you do with it?

WATSON: I don't - you know, I really don't remember. I remember how I felt, but I don't remember hardly what it was like learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for Dad to show me because I couldn't see his hands. And it was a little tough, but he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how to note the thing. And I could figure out where the notes were 'cause it was fretless. And you could slide along with your fingers, and finally, you'd come to the right one, you know? And you found out how to get there without missing it. (Laughter).

GROSS: So you were really pretty self-taught?

WATSON: For the most part, yes, I was. The guitar, absolutely, I was self-taught.

GROSS: How did you get your first guitar?

WATSON: By pulling the cross-cut saw. One spring, my dad told my youngest brother and I, boys, if you'll cut all those dead chestnut - small, dead chestnuts down along the road and around the edge of the field there, you can sell it for pulpwood to the tannery. And we went at it, and we cut a couple big truckloads. And it didn't make us a mint of money, but it made me enough to buy me a good little guitar from - well, I thought it was good at the time - from Sears Roebuck, and my younger brother ordered him a suit of clothes.


GROSS: Considering that your early instruments were homemade banjos and a mail-order guitar, did you ever get really obsessed with the quality of instruments that you were playing? Some musicians just play what they have, and others get really obsessed with having instruments that are just right for them or custom-made for them.

WATSON: I was fairly contented with what I had. I never had had my hands on a good guitar back in those days and didn't for years. The first good guitar that I got hold of that I would have considered much better than my mail-order box was a Martin guitar that - Richard Green (ph) used to have a little music store under his - he had a boarding house, or an inn there in Boone. And I went in there one day with that little mail-order thing, and he said, why don't you let me help you get you a good guitar? And I said, gosh, it costs too much. And he said, I'll tell you what I can do. I can get you a good Martin D-18 that will be a price that you can afford, and I'll take the payments down to $5 a month. And I couldn't beat that - I paid it off quicker than that, but - I couldn't beat that with a stick.

And at that time, I was playing at the little fruit stand and a couple of little bean market they had in Boone and making me a few shekels on Saturday, having a good time a-pickin'. And I paid for the guitar that summer. He got me that thing at his cost, and it cost 90 bucks. And I paid for it. Oh, Lord, I was proud of that guitar. But, in all truth, compared to my guitar now, it was like fretting a fence.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATSON: (Laughter) It was really hard to play.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I guess it's almost good in a way to get used to something like that 'cause it makes it seem so much easier when you get a good guitar.

WATSON: It really does. And when I got into the folk revival in the '60s, I ran into people who could set a guitar action out to where you could play it. And I came on to another Martin along about that time. Played a Gibson at first on the road, borrowed. Then I came into another Martin, and the action was brought down to where you could play it.

GROSS: It was really during the folk revival that you started to become nationally known. I think you'd been playing dances and, you know, playing...

WATSON: Played rockabilly music through the '50s. And I played an electric guitar, a Les Paul.

GROSS: Well, see, this really interests me. You were playing rockabilly and an electric guitar...

WATSON: Rockabilly and old pop standards, with an old boy named Jack Williams. Jack had a little group together, and when old heard me pick, he said, buddy, I want you to pick with me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, the way I understand it, Ralph Rinzler, who was working at the Smithsonian Institute, came down looking for traditional Southern musicians, came down your way and heard about you.

WATSON: He was looking for Clarence Ashley and found him. Clarence Tom Ashley. And I had played music with Tom on a few land sales and a few little shows here and there. And Ralph came over, and when he heard me, he persuaded me over my better judgment at the time that I had something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival. So I jumped in with both hands, I reckon, thinking, well, if I fail at it, it won't mean I didn't try. So I'm here. And Ralph was a member of the Greenbriar Boys at the time.

GROSS: Now, you had been playing, you know, electric guitar. Did you have to switch over to acoustic in order to make it in the folk revival?

WATSON: Yeah. I switched back to the acoustic. Yeah. Yeah. Lord, if you'd took an electric guitar on the stage on some of those festivals, they would've booed you off the stage if you were supposed to be - they used to call me ethnic until they found out I knew a few other tunes other than the old hand-me-downs - you know, the ballads and the good old tunes that I cut my teeth on. I think I really shocked some people in some of the clubs when I got my foot in the door. Ralph says, now, when you get your foot in the door, you can expand out and play a little of the other music that you played over the years, but stick strictly to traditional music, the good old ethnic stuff, till you get started. So that's what I did. I kind of deceived people a little, you know (laughter)?

GROSS: Well, I want to play something that was recorded by Ralph Rinzler. I mean, Ralph Rinzler recorded it. You were performing.

WATSON: In my living room.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATSON: In my living room. Yeah.

GROSS: And this is a recording, it was from the early 1960s, and this is "Every Day Dirt." Tell us a little bit about this song before we hear this.

WATSON: A fellow, David McCarn, was living in a mill town, Gastonia, N.C. And he heard about some recording sessions going on down - I think it was Knoxville, Tenn. And he probably slung his guitar over his back, knowing how those poor old boys fared. He and a fellow, Howard - I've forgotten his given name - went over to Knoxville and recorded a bunch of things, and "Every Day Dirt" was one of the songs that happened into our little record collection when I was a little boy. And those words are just - you know, they're automatic. I didn't even have to think about the lyrics on that. I did have to work at picking it and learned it off the old 78 record that McCarn recorded.

GROSS: OK. So from the early 1960s, this is my guest, Doc Watson.


WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder. He rattled at the door just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hannelly cried? It's my husband. You must hide. Then John sat down by the fireside weepin', and up the chimney, he got to peepin'. There, he saw that poor old soul settin' a-straddle of the pot-rack pole. Then John built on a rousing fire just to suit his own desire. His wife called out with a free good will, don't do that, for the man, you'll kill. Then John reached up, and down he fetched him like a coon when a dog had catched him. He blacked his eyes, and then did better, kicked him out right on his setter. Then his wife, she crawled in under the bed, and he pulled her out by the hair of the head. And when I'm gone remember then. He kicked her where the chances had been.

GROSS: Recorded in the early 1960s, that's my guest, Doc Watson.

How did you learn how to pick that way? We found out that you were self-taught, but it seems like it would be really hard to teach yourself an intricate style like that.

WATSON: Well, by listening to the old records, you could hear - after you got familiarized with the instrument - you could hear what strings they were hitting on and what chord they were playing in just by the sound. After all, music is sound. And I think if anybody learns the guitar properly, they shouldn't - as soon as they can get to where they can't stop looking at the neck and play without doing that. Unless it's something really hard that you're first getting into, you know, you need to memorize the distances and the jumps on the neck. Well, as I said, music is sound, and I could tell what the guy was doing, the little slide licks on there where he goes down to the certain note and then just back up there. All the chords are sound. I mean, it's like you reading something. Once I was familiar with the guitar.

GROSS: Once you put down the electric guitar for the acoustic guitar, how often did you pick up the electric guitar again?

WATSON: Very seldom. After I got into folk music and into the revival and began to play little jobs at coffeehouses, I seldom, if ever, picked up the electric guitar.

GROSS: Do you miss it at all?

WATSON: No. I love a good electric guitar. That one wasn't all that good. It was a second. Actually, it was a Les Paul Gibson. But it really was a second. The neck on it wasn't all that good. I thought it was a great thing when I first got hold of it. It had a beautiful sound, but there are some that are so much better now than it was, sound wise, you know? And as to play. I picked up a Chet Atkins model electric Gibson the other day. Beautiful hollow body. Lord, now, I was interested in that thing.

GROSS: Doc Watson, recorded in 1988. He died in 2012 at the age of 89. We'll hear more of his interview and his 1989 FRESH AIR concert in the second half of our show as we continue this July Fourth edition. Here's another song from that concert. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


WATSON: I'd like to do a little tune here that I used to hear around in (unintelligible). It's the blues that everybody's had at one time or another. It's called, "Stranger Blues." Two, three, four.

(Singing) Well, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. Yes, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. And just because I'm a stranger, you don't have to dog me 'round. Well, sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Can't find a place to stay. I just go from door to door. Well, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. Yes, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. And just because I'm a stranger...

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. On this July Fourth, we've gone into our archive for some great American music. We're listening back to a 1988 interview with and a 1989 performance by the late bluegrass and folk guitarist and singer, Doc Watson. Watson grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, and in his prime was considered the greatest guitar flatpicker in the U.S. Let's get back to the concert he recorded in our studio in 1989. He was backed by guitarist Jack Lawrence.


WATSON: When the late Jimmie Rodgers did his last sessions in the early '30s, he did some music that sat right in the edge of the big band music of that day. Here's a pretty little tune old Jim recorded, called, "Blue-Eyed Jane."

(Playing guitar).

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) The sweetest girl in the world lives in my hometown. We fell in love like turtledoves while the moon was shining down. I ask her then, I ask her when the wedding bells would ring. And she said, oh, dear. It seems strange for this to happen here. She is my sugar pie. She is the sweetest gal. I love her so, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, she meets me in the lane. My blue-eyed Jane.

(Playing guitar).

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Play it pretty, Jack.

LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Listen here, Janey, dear. I've come to say farewell. Sweetheart, you know I love you so much more than there's words to tell. But I must go away today. Honey, won't you come with me? 'Cause I'm going to be blue missing you, longing every day for you. My blue-eyed Jane, to me, you are the sweetest thing. I love you so, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, please meets me in the lane, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, then I'll come home to you, my blue-eyed Jane.

GROSS: That's guitarist and singer Doc Watson and guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. As you can hear, we've gone deep into our archive for this July Fourth edition of our show. Let's get back to our 1988 interview with Doc Watson.


GROSS: Once you went on the road during the folk revival, now you weren't used to traveling. There must have been a lot you had to learn how to do. Did you have a business manager to help you out with bookings?

WATSON: Ralph Rinzler did the bookings between he and Manny Greenhill at Folklore Productions. But Ralph traveled a lot with me. And if he didn't know when I would go to New York to work in the city, I came by Trailways Bus. Someone would always meet me at the Port Authority and take me over to Ralph's apartment. I worked - lots of times, I'd work at Gerde's Folk City a week or two weeks at a time doing either opening act or just playing the job straight there. It was scary. I was as green as a green apple as far as the city - country boy, really a...

GROSS: Oh, yeah. Sure.

WATSON: As the old-timers used to say, a hayseed for sure. But the scary part finally and the adventure finally got over with. And the road, well, it became a job.


GROSS: Yeah, I could see what you mean.

WATSON: The music, music, a good audience - I love.

GROSS: You know, I think there's always clubs who - or maybe not many. But there's always some clubs willing to take advantage of a performer. And I would guess that someone who was blind was a more likely target if they didn't have people who were watching out for them. Did you ever have any problems with that?

WATSON: I sure was glad when my son Merle started on the road with me because if we went to a place, and they didn't treat me too good, Dad, we won't come back here no more. And that was the end of it. I'd tell Manny. I'd tell Mr. Greenhill. Don't book that anymore. That was the end of it. You know, we didn't get too many places that they weren't really decent to us. But once in a great while, there are - of course, I won't call any names because we're on nationwide radio.


WATSON: But we were in a few places where they treated you like pieces of used equipment. And that was the end of playing there. We just didn't do it again. That's the best thing you can do - you know, is not tolerate that. Just move away.

GROSS: You mentioned your son, Merle. Did you teach him how to play guitar?

WATSON: No. Merle didn't show any interest in the guitar until he was 15. I was on my first concert tour - solo concert tour that spring. And about midways of it, Ralph called me and said, Doc, I've got some good news. And I said, well, lay it on me. And he said Merle has started playing the guitar. His mother Rosa Lee started him on the guitar. She taught him his first chords and showed him how to play them and a little bit about timing. And he just took it and went with it.

And we met John Hurt for the first time that same summer we went to the Berkeley Folk Festival. And Merle played backup guitar for me. He'd only been playing about three months. And he played backup guitar on the stage. And we met - when we met John Hurt, Merle was enthralled by John's finger style on the guitar. And he took that and added a few little notions of his own. And that's where Merle's picking style - finger style came from.

GROSS: So he never felt that he had to work hard to differentiate his style from your style?

WATSON: Merle, once in a while, he'd asked me for some pointers on a melody to a song or something. But Merle played his very own thing on the guitar. I don't think he even ever asked me how to hold a pick. He probably looked at the way I held it. But I never really sat down and taught him how you get this note or that note. I had just played a song and sang it, and he jumped in there and learned the lead to it.

Like "Summertime," for instance, I had heard a version of that. And I said, Merle, what do you think about learning this? And I played the thing about halfway through. And he said, gosh, I don't know. It's sounds like it would be hard. And so help me. In five minutes, he could play the lead to it.


WATSON: And when we did the recording - I'll say this about it, and then we'll move on. When we did the recording, the producer, Jack Clement, came running through and said, boys, don't touch it. It was the first take. He says that one's the way it should be. And Merle said, well, it was spontaneous. I think he said, Dad, I'll have to go back and memorize what I did. Those things happened in the studio a lot of time. You know, after you learned a song, you'll hear notes that you just reach for. And they're there. And you play things that you hadn't played before.

GROSS: Yeah, I've noticed with a lot of musicians - that they meet all these people who have memorized their licks, and they have no idea what they played (laughter). They were just being spontaneous. And everybody else goes and memorizes it. When your son Merle died, was it hard for you to go back on the road afterwards?

WATSON: If you'll pardon a little intimacy here, I'll tell you something that happened. Or I wouldn't have. Between the time he was killed and his funeral, I dreamed I was in a dark desert. And it was so hot. You couldn't breathe. And the sand was pulling me down like if you were in quicksand. And a big strong hand reached back and said come on, Dad. You can make it. And he brought me - lead me out to where it was cool. There was - sunny but there was a cool breeze. And I wake up. And I thought, well, I'll try.

And I took up the last job on that particular tour that we'd canceled. And my friend Jack Lawrence had been working some while Merle was off the road with us for quite a while. And Jack stayed on as the other guitarist. And I'm kind of glad I did. If I had stayed off the road a month, I never would have come back. It was so hard, you know - well, no, you couldn't know, Terry. But it was really hard to go back out there without him.

GROSS: I guess that dream kind of gave you permission in a way to do it.

WATSON: I believe it was godsend. I think the dream was.

GROSS: You know, we've been - I've been using the word virtuoso today. And I would guess that one of the problems of being a virtuoso is that people want to hear you play fast all the time - to hear you really, you know, do the most difficult stuff that you can do.

WATSON: Well, yeah, a lot of people do get into that. But usually if you have a big audience, you can't really take requests from the - when you're on stage. So you just program your set. And you season it with enough of that to keep the people who love the flashy things satisfied and kind of do a sensible set. I don't mind it if people like to hear the flatpicking. And it does give you a boost to get a lot of yells and whistles and screams from the audience, you know.

But I love the good solid music, too. And most of the audience do. Really, they - when it comes right down to it, they like to hear you - the whole scope of the thing. Being accused of being a virtuoso doesn't bother me as bad as people trying to put me on a pedestal, especially when they're my own age.

GROSS: What do you mean by putting you on a pedestal?

WATSON: Well, they act like you're God or something, you know? Lord, I'm just people like everybody else. I do play the guitar. But I had to work awful hard at it to learn what I know.

GROSS: Can I ask you a question that I hope you don't mind me asking? And if you do, don't answer it (laughter). A lot of performers who are blind wear dark glasses when they perform. And that's something you've never done.

WATSON: I don't know why I always hated - used to have a good bit of light perception. It doesn't bother me now because most of it's gone. But the reflection off sunglasses - you know how they come in on the sides? I guess they make them now that won't do it. But, boy, they used to try to get me to wear them. I reckon they didn't like the way my eyes looked. A lot of people say you ought to wear sunglasses. I hated them.

GROSS: Mmm hmm.

WATSON: And I wouldn't do it. And I just never have worn them. I don't know if the blind that wear them their eyes look really abnormal or what. I don't know. I never did care, Terry, to wear them - just didn't do it.

GROSS: Right.

WATSON: No particular reason except what I told you.

GROSS: One last thing - you know, there's a really nice recording from the early '60s of you and your wife singing together. Does she still sing? Do you ever sing together?

WATSON: She doesn't sing anymore or play anymore. The tragedy of losing Merle, Terry, has just about undone her. She does the office work there at home. But she's not Rosa Lee anymore. Bless her little heart. She - I don't know. Sometimes I just want to cry. And, you know, especially when I'm away from her, I do when I think about it. I try not to and try to encourage her when I can. It's a tough - it's been tough on her. And she can't seem to get over the loss. The grief really has her yet.

GROSS: Yeah, I can understand. But I regret we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for coming, for talking with us about music. And thank you very much. And I hope you have a good continuing year on the road.

WATSON: I'll guarantee you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: Doc Watson recorded in 1988. Here's two more songs from the concert he recorded on our show with guitarist Jack Lawrence in 1989.


WATSON: Jack, I think a good old train song might be in order right here. Son, I remember that song over there that brother Jimmy Jett wrote. And I'm going to plug an album right here. I'm not supposed to do this. But it's on an album I did for Sugar Hill called "Riding The Midnight Train" - a bluegrass album, my first endeavor on pure bluegrass. "Greenville Trestle" is a song for the train buffs that love the good old steam engine sounds and all that good. I remember when I went to school at Raleigh. The train went by every 20 minutes on average. And this song makes me think of those days.


WATSON: (Singing) I remember as a boy how in wonderment and joy I'd watch the trains as they'd go by. And the whistle's lonesome sound you could hear for miles around as they rolled across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. Pick it, son.

On the riverbank I'd stand with my cane pole in my hand and watch the freight trains up against the sky. With black smoke trailing back as they moved along the track that runs across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

When the lonesome whistles whine, I get rambling on my mind. Lord, I wish they still sounded that way. As I turn to head for home, Lord, she'd rumble low and long toward the sunset at the close of day. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. No, the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

GROSS: We're featuring a live concert today with Doc Watson and Jack Lawrence. And it looks like we'll have time for one more song.

WATSON: Jack, while we're at it there, that instrumental sounded pretty good. Let's do a little bit of something that ain't quite country here to kind of wind it down with - something called "Bye Bye Blues." When we play anything, it's country though.


GROSS: Guitarist and singer Doc Watson along with guitarist Jack Lawrence recorded in our studio in 1989. Doc Watson died in 2012 at the age of 89. So today we did something we don't typically do, which is to go way back in our archive for a holiday show. We have some great interviews and performances from many years ago that we'd love to share with you on holidays. Let us know what you think of that idea. You can tweet us @nprfreshair. That's all one word. After we take a short break, rock critic Ken Tucker will review new recordings he likes to listen to with the volume up. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Sometimes you just want to crank up the volume and play a piece of music real loud. And that's what Ken Tucker wants to do when he listens to the recently released songs he's going to review, songs from three different genres - rock, punk and funk. Here's his review of music by My Morning Jacket's Jim James, the Danish band Iceage and George Clinton's Parliament.


JIM JAMES: (Singing) Can't get to work, can't get to sleep - you've got to move your dancing feet. You've got to roam all over the world. I made mistakes.

KEN TUCKER: Jim James is best known as the front man for My Morning Jacket. But he's also released a string of solo albums of which "Uniform Distortion" is the third one. It is, overall, a collection of intentionally rough, loud songs. Backed by an efficient two-man rhythm section, there's an emphasis on James' guitar, which has a ragged, sometimes blaring sound. In a recent interview, James said, I wanted to make a record that's fun and quick and raw. And as he says on this song, rock on now.


JAMES: (Singing) Here I stand, going through the motions with the mic in my hand. Playing hard to get, pretending like I understand. Just a fool getting by. Just a fool doing all right. Rock on, now. Out getting loaded...

TUCKER: George Clinton, the longtime king of funk with his bands Parliament and Funkadelic is back with the first Parliament album in 38 years. It's called "Medicaid Fraud Dog," a clever concept album. Clinton uses his advanced age - he's 77 years old - as a springboard for songs both silly and serious about government aid programs, the opioid crisis and the healing power of funk music. All of it combines to form Clinton's pronouncement on the health of the country or, as he calls it, one nation under sedation.


TUCKER: The album's first single features a fine, lurching rhythm; dense guitar, keyboard, drum grooves; and Clinton's gravelly voice singing the title, which is "I'm Gon Make U Sick O'me."


PARLIAMENT: (Singing) I'm gon' make you sick - I'm gon' make you sick of me. Then I'm going to give you the antidote. Something to make you better. I'm gon' make you sick - I'm gon' make you sick of me. Then I'm going to give you the antidote - hey, hey, hey. La la la da di da di da di day (ph), la la la da di da di da di day, la la la da di da di da di day, la la la da di da di da. Then what I'm going to do - I'm gon' make you sick...

TUCKER: Iceage is a Danish band from Copenhagen. The band started out close to a decade ago, heavily influenced by 1970s punk rock. Now, more albums into their career, they've expanded their sound to include horns and take in a more grand, Gothic tone on their new collection titled "Beyondless." The key to their pleasure is that the quartet keeps its song structures tight and never neglects to include a refrain that hooks you into hanging on for the next tremulous or angry verse.


ICEAGE: (Singing) It takes character to make a decision. It takes more to stand firm and follow through. But some stand points are more than I can live up to. Performed an exorcism on myself. Cited prayers and rites of deliverance. Yet here I am, somehow still possessed.

TUCKER: The new music from all three of these acts seeks release in letting loose, in the pleasure music can give from creating wild, anarchic spaces within the framework of pop music song structures. There's an art to summoning up chaos and an equal reward in keeping that chaos under control.

GROSS: Ken Tucker is critic at large for Yahoo TV.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we take a look back at the Supreme Court term with New York Times Supreme Court reporter Adam Liptak. We'll talk about important decisions that didn't get much attention as well as those that did. And we'll talk about Justice Kennedy's retirement. Liptak reported that the president and his allies subtly encouraged Kennedy to retire with enough time to appoint a new justice before the midterm elections. I hope you'll join us.


JAMES BROWN: (Singing) Baby, give it up, or turn it a loose.

GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our 1989 concert with Doc Watson was recorded by our technical director and engineer Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer for digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Therese Madden directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.

Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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