(Photo: Laura Brown)
Doc Watson seemed like he’d been an old master all his life. A blind man who once rewired his entire house and skinned and cleaned raccoons as a kid, Doc was also never short on resourcefulness.
I first discovered Doc some time soon after college. Living with some friends in the mountains of Western North Carolina, I started listening to the Folkways album, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s.
One phrase has always stuck with me about Doc. He was a great American “stylist.” Doc wasn’t much of a songwriter, but he put his mark—his style—on pretty much everything he touched. Guitarists like Maybelle Carter, Riley Puckett, and Merle Travis laid a lot of the groundwork for acoustic flatpicking, but Doc took it to a new level.
Read Our 2012 Doc Watson Interview
He was influenced by fiddle players like his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton. Doc once told an anecdote about trying to learn fiddle as a youngster but abandoned it because it sounded like rattling a rusty cage. But he definitely took something from the Appalachian fiddle players, and adapted it—styled it—for the guitar.
He was a formidable guitar virtuoso in the days before it seemed like everyone played lightning fast in bluegrass. Doc could flatpick just about anyone under the table. But he was so damn tasteful he didn’t have to. To boot—he had one of the most beautiful singing voices of all time.
When the folklorist Ralph Rinzler came to North Carolina to record Clarence Ashley in 1960, the story goes that Doc didn’t own an acoustic guitar. He had been playing electric in a country and western swing band. Ashley had been something of a regional music star in the 1920s, mostly with a string band called the Carolina Tar Heels, but by 1960 he was not playing much.
The recordings Doc and Ashley made together from 1960-1962 with a motley crew of North Carolina friends and neighbors—Gaither Carlton and other locals like singer-guitarist Clint Howard and the lights-out fiddler Fred Price—are some of the most beautiful and haunting of all time. They capture the musicians in a pure, unhurried state. Some of these guys seem like they’re looking back on the string band and regional blues heyday of twenties and thirties. That combination of nostalgia and discovery is hard to match.
Perhaps most importantly, though, the recordings revealed the talents of the thirty-seven-year-old Doc Watson, a relatively young buck who possessed the musical depth and gravitas of the old masters.
The next Doc album I really came into close contact with was the Live Duet Recordings with Bill Monroe. These are some of the finest versions of songs like “Have a Feast Here Tonight” and “Midnight on the Stormy Deep” and instrumentals like “East Tennessee Blues” and “Chicken Reel.”
At one point on the record, Monroe complains that he and Doc don’t get much time to practice because there’s always someone trying to pick a banjo or fiddle. If that’s true, you can’t tell. They are in lockstep the entire way.
In many ways, Bill was Doc’s perfect foil. He’s a little loose and edgy—rhythmically, vocally—where Doc is rock solid. Doc’s baritone is smooth and reassuring; Bill’s tenor is reedy and a bit pitchy. The mandolin and guitar seem as if they were meant for each other on these duet recordings. Playing with Doc probably reminded Bill of his brother, Charlie, and some of the tunes have their origins in the Monroe Brothers catalog from the thirties, such as “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul” and “Where is my Sailor Boy?”
I got to see Doc perform a few times before he died.
Once, in Atlanta, he chided his grandson Richard Watson for drifting too far into a pentatonic blues solo. “Stay with the tune, boy,” Doc whispered under his breath.
At MerleFest, Doc was a central fixture. You’d see him golf-carting around the grounds, or sitting in the Watson Family viewing area on the side of the main stage. Or, of course, you’d see him on stage on Sunday morning of the festival. He was gentle, soft-spoken, and seemed to possess the wisdom of the ages.
At Jazz Fest in 2009, we saw Doc performing in one of the festival tents. (My wife snapped the photo, above.) Late May in New Orleans can be a hot and humid affair. That day inside the tent it felt like a sauna, though eighty-six-year-old Doc Watson didn’t seem a bit fazed.
For an old master, he sure could play like a young buck.
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This story originally appeared on the Two Degrees In Bebop music blog.