Don't Tell Me, I Don't Know
Review from Raleigh News & Observer February 14, 1999
By Jack Bernhardt
All of which brings to mind Jim Watson, who has roamed and rambled but never really strayed from the music he helped keep vital with the Hollow Rock String Band. For fans of traditional music, Chapel Hill without Jim Watson is as unthinkable as Tar Heel basketball without Dean Smith.
In the 1960s and early '70s, Chapel Hill and Durham were centers of the folk revival, and Hollow Rock and the Fuzzy Mountain String Band were the best of the region's pickers. Recording music they learned from old-timers in the mountains of North Carolina, Virginia and West Virginia, the bands accumulated a vast repertoire of rare old tunes as they apprenticed with the masters and learned the importance the music held in Southern culture from the 19th century until World War II.
By 1972, Hollow Rock and the Fuzzies had disbanded, and three of their pickers -- Bill Hicks, Tommy Thompson and Watson -- assembled a like-minded combo called the Red Clay Ramblers. While the Ramblers began much like their predecessors, they soon evolved into unique and eclectic entertainers whose repertoire ranged from dance tunes to ballads, swing, jazz, blues, Tin Pan Alley classics and show tunes. In 1975, they took to the New York stage in Diamond Studs and, a decade later, appeared in Sam Shepard's A Lie of the Mind.
Ever since then, theater and film have occupied much of the Ramblers' musical energies. But the Great White Way wasn't for everyone, and in 1986, Watson left the band and eventually signed on as bass player with longtime friends Robin and Linda Williams.
Now comes Don't Tell Me, I Don't Know, Watson's self-released solo debut, and anyone who ever wondered why he gave up the footlights for the headlights need look no further than this long-awaited and engaging disc.
All 14 tracks are chosen from, and arranged and performed in, the heart of the Southern tradition. Selections range from the ethereal bluegrass of Bill Monroe ("Walls of Time") and the bluegrass gospel of Flatt and Scruggs ("Reunion in Heaven"), to early country classics by Jimmie Rodgers ("Miss the Mississippi and You," "My Carolina Sunshine Girl") and Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers ("Leaving Home") through traditional murder ballads ("Young Emily").
Don't Tell Me, I Don't Know is a monument to the talent and vision of its creator, who arranged all the selections and plays guitar, mandolin and bass. Much of the album recalls the pre-Broadway Ramblers of the Stolen Love and Merchants Lunch period, especially the tracks with former Ramblers Hicks (fiddle) and Mike Craver (piano). With Watson singing his trademark high tenor lead on every song, it's a very fine sound, indeed.
The album is brimming with highlights. They include banjoist Joe Newberry's minor key duet with Watson on "Young Emily"; the high, haunting Watson-Craver reunion on "Faded Coat of Blue"; "Just Keep Waiting 'Til the Good Times Come" with Rebecca and Bill Newton; "I'm Going to the West" with Robin and Linda Williams singing harmony; and the spirited duet vocal with Alice Gerrard on "Leaving Home."
Excellent support is also provided by current Rambler Chris Frank on piano; resophonic guitarist Kevin Maul, who along with Watson forms the Williamsí backing band; and by Watson's local bluegrass quintet, the Green Level Entertainers, who join on "Walls of Time" and "Sugar Coated Love." Engineered and mastered by Shady Grove Band guitarist Jerry Brown, Don't Tell Me, I Don't Know is the finest traditional music recording to sprout from the Triangle's fertile fields in many years.