Thursday, July 12, 2012

Elvis Covers Part I: Heartbreak Hotel

Doc Watson: Heartbreak Hotel


We speak so much and so well of Arthel "Doc" Watson's ethnomusical prowess with the fiddle tunes of hill and holler, it's easy to forget he fed his early ear on radio, and got his start as a barroom player in a country and western swing band.

But Watson never forgot his other roots. Although a number of his earliest recordings mine Appalachia almost exclusively, his overall body of work - over fifty LPs in all - is peppered with here-and-there coverage of contemporary songs, their tunes and tenor popping through the surface of tradition like errant wildflowers in a field of wheat.

Docabilly, his late career tribute to his early influences, is an extreme case, and quite produced in places, as it should be - Doc's trip down memory lane is paved with smooth studio versions that lean heavily on brushed drums, bluegrass pickin' and slippery slide guitars even as their settings veer from true-blue blues to high-concept country. At its worst, this gives Docabilly a bit of a "novelty album" feel, and it's tempting to argue from a purist's perspective that Doc fails to give this song the gravity it deserves, given its narrative origin in the true tale of a man who jumped out of a hotel window. But there's something tender about the way the aging cowboy baritone takes on these mid-century rock and country hits from Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, The Everly Brothers, and The King himself - he loves these tunes, and you can hear it.

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