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.