Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson & Ricky Scaggs: “Down in the Valley to Pray” (The Three Pickers, 2003)

Back in March, we lost Earl Scruggs, the great banjo innovator who invented a much-imitated three-finger style of playing. Yesterday, we lost one of his closest friends, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, a man whose flat-picking guitar style was nearly as influential.

Watson was 89, and had been performing since his childhood. Watson was blind, having lost his sight at the age of one, but he wasn’t slowed by his handicap. He earned the money to buy his first guitar by chopping down trees and selling the wood. 

By the mid-40s, Scruggs was a major figure in the emerging bluegrass movement, while Watson had a much lower profile. the two met when Watson sat in with Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys on a night when Monroe was sick and needed someone to take some of the vocal burden off of him. Scruggs and Lester Flatt left the Bluegrass Boys to form Flatt & Scruggs and became bluegrass superstars; for Watson, it was a much more winding path to stardom.

It was really the 1960s folk music revival that brought him to fame. His first few recordings were made for Folkways, and he recorded for Vanguard in the mid-60s. He made records with his son Merle until Merle’s untimely death in 1985; he never really crossed over the way Flatt & Scruggs did, but he remained highly respected in the country and folk music worlds. 

The Three Pickers album is a classic of modern bluegrass, celebrating the music and the people responsible for it. It brings Scruggs and Watson together with a younger guy who learned a lot from Watson, Ricky Scaggs, and there is a lot of crazy picking on the album for sure.

It’s this one that always leapt out at me, though. This is a very old spiritual that Watson originally found in an 1872 collection of songs frequently performed by the Fisk Jubilee Singers, a popular vocal group of the late 19th Century formed by students at the all-black Fisk University in Nashville to raise funds for the school.

There’s no wild guitar or banjo on this song, but it does put Watson’s dusky baritone front and center, and for that reason alone, it’s powerful. I don’t have a religious atom in my body, but you don’t have to to feel the special energy burning at the center of this performance.