For me, Doc Watson will always be his first album. I like a lot of his other work, liked seeing him live, loved interviewing him the one time I got to do it, and Peter Keane and I used his version of “Blue Railroad Train” as the theme song to our live radio show. I also had a fairly passionate love affair with the Watson family LP he made for Folkways with his wife and other relatives, and his live recordings with Clint Howard and Fred Price — in short, I’m a solid fan. But that first album still defines him for me, and is on my short list of all-time favorite records.
I learned and remember a half-dozen songs from that album, including “Sitting on Top of the World,” “I Was Born About 10,000 Years Ago,” “Omie Wise,” and “Black Mountain Rag,” which I struggled with for years but could never play even halfway competently — my battles with that piece were what confirmed I would never be a serious flatpicker. But my favorite guitar arrangement was and is “Deep River Blues,” his reworking of the Delmore Brothers’ “I’ve Got the Big River Blues” — a preference shared by virtually every fingerpicker I’ve ever met. I learned it from the tablature in the Doc Watson songbook, which , as usual, was a mixed blessing — without the tablature I wouldn’t have been able to learn it when I did, but because I learned it from tablature I never got the quirks and variations that make Doc’s version so great. Of course, I could have gone back and learned the piece properly, but by the time I had the chops to do that I was trying to learn pieces that everybody else didn’t already play — and boy, did everybody ever play “Deep River Blues.”
So I just kept it as something I played for my own enjoyment, or when I got requests, with the result that I’ve never really solidified an arrangement of my own, and keep having fun with it, playing Doc’s basic part as best I can and experimenting with how I might vary it if I took the time to work up my own version of his version.