17 live duet performances by two giants of American roots music - need I say more? Well, I will, mainly because I have been so excited about this album since I came across it at County Sales a few years ago and my enthusiasm certainly hasn’t faded. Bill Monroe and Doc Watson are two of the greatest to ever pick and sing, and their influence in bluegrass and folk music circles is immeasurable. To hear them play and sing together in a duet setting is a rare treat!
Ralph Rinzler (the great folklorist responsible for “discovering” Watson and Monroe’s manager in the early 60s) always had a vision of getting these two men together for a duet recording, but restrictions imposed by their record labels prevented them from ever going into a studio together to record a proper album. Curated by Rinzler, the resulting project is selected live performances recorded during various concert appearances between 1963 and 1980. The lack of a carefully planned and rehearsed studio atmosphere is truly for the best, in my opinion, as there is something so special, so honest and direct, about these two great performers with a strong mutual respect for one another sitting down in front of a live audience and working things out as they go. In fact, the banter included between the songs is nearly as entertaining as the music itself and grounds these performances on a human level.
As a big fan of Bill Monroe’s early duet recordings with his brother Charlie, I especially enjoy hearing the way that Bill approaches some of the Monroe Brothers’ repertoire decades later in his career, after his own playing and singing had evolved so much from the way he sounded in 1937. Doc mentions between songs how influential the Monroe Brothers’ music was to him growing up, so it’s fun to hear Doc interpreting Charlie’s vocal parts and guitar runs in his own mature style. It’s 100% Doc Watson while also clearly demonstrating the depth of the influence he received from pioneering acts like the Monroe Brothers.
There is a nice variety of material represented on this collection, including a number of classic brother duets and some of Monroe’s original songs, as well as some Monroe instrumentals and a handful of inspired traditional fiddle tunes. The playing and singing is top notch and with loads of character, as one should expect. Even with such distinctive individual voices, both vocally and instrumentally, the blend is exceptional. The musical interplay in the live setting is dynamic and responsive, and it is obvious that these two masters are savoring the rare opportunity to sit down and make music with each other. As wonderful as this listening experience is for an audience, I get the impression that Bill and Doc would be just as happy playing music together on a front porch somewhere - playing for no one but themselves.
This album should absolutely be considered essential listening for bluegrass fans. If you don’t have it in your collection, pick up a copy today - you won’t regret it!
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