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Doc Watson, RIP

[ 16 ] May 29, 2012 |

The great, wonderful, amazing Doc Watson has passed at the age of 89.

Doc’s story is well-known to fans of Appalachian music. Blind from infancy, Doc learned to play a guitar as a child. He made no money at it despite his skill and was selling pencils when Ralph Rinzler came to western North Carolina looking to record folk music. Doc was recruited as someone who could play almost anything; from those sessions he’s probably most noted for playing with Clarence Ashley when that old folk giant was recorded. But Doc was not the traditional unchanging Appalachian stereotype the early folk audiences of the 60s looked for. He was a man with one foot in the 19th century and another in the present. He played in local rockabilly and rock bands to earn money and had a great ear for turning old-time songs into resonant tunes for present day listeners. Because he was a guitarist playing fiddle parts on a different instrument, he tapped into the guitar-god stuff rock and roll audiences loved. And oh boy could Doc Watson pick a guitar. His deep baritone was a modern voice, as opposed to the scratchy, heavily-accented voices of a lot of old-time musicians and his voice stayed great until he was very old. He got big during the folk era, then was picked up for the Will the Circle be Unbroken sessions, then played with his son Merle. Merle died in a farming accident in the 80s, but Doc kept on, creating Merlefest, one of the most important yearly gatherings for bluegrass and old-time musicians. I’ve never been to this and I always wanted to go. Regrets abound.

I saw Doc Watson play twice. The first, at the Tennessee Theater in Knoxville was a show with David Grisman. Grisman was friends with Ralph Rinzler as a teenager in New Jersey and was amazed upon hearing Doc’s work (more so than Rinzler). They became friends and finally toured together. This must have been 1998. In 2000, I saw Doc play a more traditional show with his grandson Richard in Maryville, Tennessee. Both shows were quite different and just really great. Grisman of course likes his jam sessions and Doc could pick with the best of them. Richard Watson was more of an acoustic white blues picker and so I got to hear Doc do some old blues tunes in the first half of that show, then pull out his more regular repertoire in the second half. Both were just amazing. He’d play these songs he’d claim his mom knew as a child and right there you have to figure this is a song from 1900 or even earlier. Yet here he was making it relevant for listeners a solid century later. He was a living history lesson, bringing part of the late 19th century to your ears.

There was nothing like seeing Doc Watson live, but here’s a couple of clips to give you a taste of his awesomeness. Here he is playing “Tennessee Stud,” which was a Jimmy Driftwood song but Doc probably did more than anyone else to keep it known, at least until Johnny Cash played it on the first American album.

And here’s him with Merle and some other guys doing “Summertime,” always a favorite.

The LA Times has some nice video clips as well.

Comments (16)

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  1. Hogan says:

    He had the nerve and he had the blood and there never was a hoss like the Tennessee Stud.

    RIP

  2. dp says:

    Damn, another one. Doc Watson was the bomb.

  3. pete says:

    I always liked Guy Clark’s tribute (in Dublin Blues), for putting Doc in context:

    I have seen the David
    I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too
    I have heard Doc Watson
    Play Columbus Stockade Blues

  4. Paul Gottlieb says:

    Starting with his appearance at the 1961 University of Chicago Folk Festival, I must have seen Doc perform 20 times, and he never disappointed. I can’t think of another performer so universally beloved and admired. A unique combination of awesome virtuosity and a warm, natural stage presence

    • Richard says:

      First saw Doc at the Ash Grove in the early sixties. Last saw him two years ago at Hardly Strictly. Hearing his version of Black Mountain Rag for the first time was a never to be forgotten experience.

      • Nutella says:

        I saw Doc and Merle play in a small university auditorium in the 70s. I’ve always remembered the people in the front row with their feet up on the edge of the stage, all moving in time to the music.

  5. erik g says:

    My Dad, a baby boomer, took me and my brother way back in the 80s to see him when we were living in Eugene, and his is the version of the ‘Tennessee Stud’ that I remember so I though of Johnny Cash doing a ‘Doc Watson’ cover;) And now my Niece likes to listen to the “guitar music” so my Dad cues up old Doc, and she dances.

  6. mingo says:

    I saw Doc Watson at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in ’89 – it was a huge thrill. I’m so sorry he’s gone, but he had a good long spell. I think I was sadder (for him) when Merle died. I heard him do an a capella version of ‘What a friend we have in Jesus’ shortly after that, and it was just heart-rending.

  7. Gus says:

    This sucks, but he made 89. I’m glad I got to see him once (about 12 years ago), and I’m kicking myself for missing him a number of times. RIP.

  8. ino shinola says:

    Oh, man

    Doc and Earl, musical pioneers. I can’t think of anybody in the same class as far as completely defining an instrumental style, maaybee Louis Armstrong, maybe Hendrix. It’s sad they’re gone, fitting that they left so close together.

    Doc was just astoundingly versatile, everything he did was done with perfect economy of expression and utterly impeccable taste.

    Years ago I declared late one night that I’d like “Shady Grove” played at my own funeral, it’s still just about musical perfection as far as I’m concerned.

    Thanks for your well-written tribute, we’ll miss you, Doc.

  9. ignobility says:

    A friend of mine was driving thru North Carolina and decided to drop in on Doc Watson. I’m not sure how he knew where he lived, but he found him, was welcomed into his home, and spent several hours there, talking and listening to Doc play. A little chutzpah paid off big for my friend.

  10. Beauzeaux says:

    I’ve listened to Doc for years and years — and I never knew he was blind.
    Doc and Earl — none like them.

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