Doc Watson: Still at Home on Stage



From April, 2000
Roanoke Times
Madelyn Rosenberg
   If he had his way, Doc Watson would never stray far from Deep Gap, N.C.
   “I love a good audience,” said Watson, a guitarist and singer who has recorded more than 50 albums. “But honey, I hate the road. I don’t care a thing in the world about being away from home.” There are too many things keeping him there. The mountains he has always known. His loved ones. The road isn’t comfortable, even when the hotel room has a proper bed.
“I can never truly, fully relax on the road,” he said. “On stage I can.”
Watson, who will be at Radford University on Saturday night, performs only 25 to 30 engagements a year, down from 200, now that he’s retired. At the shows he does take on, he is easy with his audience, his voice warm, like rosewood, his laughter quick, like his fingers.
He is himself on stage, as big as life, but no bigger. “I never try to do a formal show,” said Watson, a country boy now as much as he was in the days when he still wore overalls. “I used to try to, but it’s foolishness. People accept you better if you’re sitting down there with them, not talking down to them, or making them feel that you’re something out of the ordinary.”
   Fans and critics continue to see Watson as extraordinary. They describe him as a legend, as a treasure, as “the Great Doc Watson.” He has received the National Medal of Arts, the National Heritage Fellowship and five Grammy awards.
“But I don’t feel like a legend or something great,” said Watson, who turned 77 in March. “I’m just an entertainer and I love to play music.”
Arthel “Doc” Watson was born in 1923, the son of Annie and General Watson, in a house that was filled with work and music. An eye infection took his sight before he was a year old.
   When he was 6, he learned to play the harmonica. At 11, it was a banjo, its head made of the hide of his grandmother’s late and aged cat, his father’s practical handiwork.
“Music, from the time I can remember, was a centerpiece in my life,” Watson said. “It was something I dearly loved.”
He got his schooling in Raleigh, N.C., at Governor Morehead’s School for the Blind. There he learned to play a few chords on a friend’s guitar. Soon after, he bought his own. Guitar won out over the banjo before Watson started making money at the end of a crosscut saw.
   When he was in his early 20s, he married Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of an old-time fiddle player and the “sweet wife” he says still reminds him of a girl. They had two children, Nancy and Eddy Merle.
Doc Watson was making his living in music by then – first by tuning pianos and then by playing electric guitar in a dance band. “If I could see, music would have been a hobby,” Watson said. “I would have had a job where I could go home at night. But whatever fate the good Lord puts in your hands, you use it.
“I may have been a haughty, mean rascal if I didn’t have the handicap. I guess I have been part of my life anyway.”
It was during the dance band years that Watson began to create his signature sound, taking fiddle tunes and arranging them for guitar.
He played fingerstyle – and still does – but for these tunes he used a flat pick to create a rolling line of notes. The sound drew national attention in the early 1960s after musician and folk collector Ralph Rinzler, founding director of the Smithsonian’s Office of Folklife Programs, convinced Watson to switch to an acoustic guitar and bring his mountain music north.
“I hesitated,” Watson said. “I didn’t think people would sit and listen to that. I got me a big, pleasant surprise.”
The audiences at folk conventions and on college campuses were large. “I had a bit of stage fright, let me tell you,” said Watson, who was 39 at the time.
But he played and started life on road in earnest. Other musicians listened and learned.
“Doc was the first one who really popularized the single note, melodic style of playing,” said Dan Miller, editor of the Pulaski-based Flat Picking Guitar Magazine.
Other people had experimented with that musical style, but it was Watson who gave it appeal. “His modesty and country charm and wisdom and all that came to forefront,” said Miller, who has written about Watson extensively. “Anybody I interview these days from Tony Rice on down lists Doc as a major influence.”
Watson, a storyteller as well as a singer, embraced all types of music, from old-time, folk and bluegrass to blues and jazz. “He’s soulful,” Miller said. “Whatever he plays he makes it his own because it comes from inside. People can feel that.”
Because the notes don’t fill every space, the music sounds best with accompaniment.
For 20 years, Watson found that accompaniment in his son, Merle, who started playing and recording with his dad in ’64, then joined him full on in ’66. “There were a lot of dues to paid in the music business, and Merle and I paid, before it became lucrative at all,” Watson said. “He did hundreds of thousands of miles of driving. It went into the millions, I think.”
Conversation naturally turns to Merle, laid to rest in a small family cemetery near Watson’s home. Doc sometimes refers to his wife, whom he still thinks of as a girl, as “Merle’s mother.” Merle was his right-hand man. He had his own guitar style and the two toured America and built a following.
But in the fall of 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Doc thought about quitting music, but didn’t, choosing instead to perform with friend Jack Lawrence as his musical partner.
Wilkesboro Community College, a few winding turns from Deep Gap, asked permission a few years after Merle’s death to hold a festival in his honor featuring musicians who were friendly with and influenced by the Watsons. The family agreed. Nicknamed “Merlefest,” the concert spans four days on the last weekend each April and has grown in attendance from 4,000 people to 45,000. At that festival, Richard Watson, who resembles Merle in appearance and demeanor, joins his grandfather on stage. He now plays with Watson and Lawrence at engagements close to home. He will join them in Radford.
“I sure missed Merle when he left us,” Doc Watson said. “When Richard first started playing, I don’t know that a grandfather could have been any gladder about it. Somebody asked me, ‘Are you a great grandpa?’ after [Richard’s daughter] Candace was born. And I said ‘Nah, just average.’
“It really has been a wonderful thing for Richard to come up and sit down and play those licks that are flavored an awful lot like his dad played.”
Richard Watson, who recorded “Third Generation Blues” with his grandfather last year, helps out at home, too. He will take care of the mowing when the grass grows ankle-deep. Doc Watson is in charge of the mechanics. He spoke recently on a break from repairing the family lawn mower. “You have to winterize the doggone things,” he explained, and then make new adjustments come spring. “I was just hooking up the battery when you hollered.”
“He’s very mechanically minded,” said Lawrence, who knows Watson’s playing nearly as well as his own. “Ten or 12 years back he built his own utility building, cut all the lumber himself and pounded every nail. He’s able to do anything he wants to do, but see.”
Lawrence, who does the driving on their tours (“Doc drives too fast,” he joked) has seen his partner’s influence on generations of guitar players.
“He’s probably been the biggest influence on me in my playing,” said Wayne Henderson, a Rugby guitarist and guitar-maker. “I’d say he’s influenced more people than probably anybody, especially in our kind of music. He’s definitely a pioneer.”
Lawrence felt the influence himself at 15, when he came across an Earl Scruggs album that featured Watson on guitar. Now they play together. Watson, his eyes winking, sets the tone and strums chords that tell Lawrence what they’ll play next.
   “It’s like we’re sitting down in our living room playing,” Lawrence said. “I like that about it.”
Watson has always contended he’d rather be remembered as a decent human being than anything else.
That’s likely how he will be remembered, said Dan Miller, the magazine editor. “That’s the most important part of being Doc Watson.”

2 Responses to Doc Watson: Still at Home on Stage

  1. madelyn says:

    Aw, thanks, Dane, and thanks for passing it on. The internet helps newspaper articles stick around a little longer! (And they don’t get yellow here…)

  2. Dane Henshall says:

    Madelyn, First of all, I love your writing. You are an artist with words. Thank you for sharing this article you wrote about a truly gifted and talented musician. I will share with my sister and my college music buddies of kindred spirit. Dane

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