Doc Watson has died at the age of 89. He was the most famous of the Watson Family and is reknowned for his fine examples of the Anglo-American folk tradtion, many of which go back many generations. He was also a legendary guitar player who adopted a unque style of flat picking, a technique adopted from from learning fiddle tunes on the electric guitar to accompany a swing band he played in. His style of playing changed how the guitar was used in traditional roots music.
He has left a huge legacy as well as numerous recordings that will go on to influence many more generations to come. We will be adding some of Doc’s music to our playlist from tomorrow.
Doc Watson was born in Stoney Fork, North Carolina on March 23 1923. Blind from an early age. The Watson family was a musical one and being around that music all the time, in the home and church, had a big influence upon him. He had a great ear for music and experimented from a young age. One story tells of him stringing a wire from the door of the grainery, manipulating the door to get a perfect C, and then playing along harmonica to the resonating note.
He wasn’t discouraged from his musical pursuits even if he did drive his mother half crazy trying to get music out of a cow bell he found. Instead he was given his first banjo at 11 and guitar at 13.
He came to fame at an interesting time during the “folk revival” of the late 1950’s and early 60’s when people began to take an earnest interest in the music of North Carolina thanks to the likes of the Kingston Trio having a chart hit with the tradtional song Tom Dooley.
In Jeff Place’s sleeve notes for ‘The Doc Watson Family’ on Smithsonian he mentions the irony of what happened. Whilst Appalachia remained a fertile ground for good musicians they were more interested in evolving their music with more modern sounds and “old style music” was considered exactly that:
“The meeting between Ralph Rinzler (folklorist), Eugene Earle, Tom Ashley and the Watsons represented the collision of these two musical worlds leading to consequences on both. In a sense the “folk revival” led to a revival of the the very same music in the community from whence it came.”
Rinzler first met Doc Watson at the famous Union Grove Fddler’s Convention (from which we’ll feature some recordings) where he had planned to record Clarence Ashley, he wasn’t impressed when he spotted an electric guitar player present at the session and made that known. The electric guitarist was in fact Doc Watson.
After an aborted session it wasn’t until the next day that the two met again travelling in the back of a pickup truck for another session that Rinzler got to hear Doc playing banjo. Doc agreed to use an acoustic guitar for a recording session and the rest, as they say, is history.
Doc’s first job was with Jack Williams’ group, a country swing and rockabilly band. His acoustic technique apparently originated from him learning fiddle tunes on the electric guitar to accompany the band. The radio and phonograph had a profound influence upon him as well, hardly the isolated mountain musician people maybe first took him for.
As he grew in popularity he played bigger venues including Newport Folk Festival, Carnegie Hall in New York, he toured the world and even played for the President.
Performing and travelling as a solo artist in his early career was a tough call for Doc, away from home travelling by bus for long periods was a lonely and exhausting one and saw him come close to chucking the towel in. That thankfully changed when he was later joined by his son Merle as a picking partner. Merle adopted his own style of playing which was largely influence by early blues players such as Mississippi John Hurt and later by Duane Allman when he learned to play slide. The two of them together were something else and those Vanguard recordings are some of the best. Doc and Merle continued to perform and record successfully during the early ’80s, giving numerous successful concerts each year and earning many awards, including another Grammy in 1979 (Best Country Instrumental Performance for “Big Sandy”/”Leather Britches”).
Tragedy hit the family in 1985 when Merle was killed in a tractor accident, he was just 36. After this, Doc found it very hard to return to music and revealed in an interview to Acoustic Music magazine (1997) that he had decided to quit music the night before the funeral. He had a terrifying dream that night, he felt like he was in quicksand upto his waist and that he wasn’t going to make it. He then heard a voice saying ‘Come on, dad, you can make it. Keep going’. He took that as a sign that God wanted him to continue which he did.
Doc Watson was also known as being a very humble and down to earth individual, the statue that was made in his honour in 2011 in Boone, N.C. reads “Just One of the People,”. On the Merlefest website (a festival dedicate to Doc’s son) there is a great quote:
When asked how he would like to be remembered, Doc responded by saying,
“I would rather be remembered as a likable person than for any phase of my picking. Don’t misunderstand me; I really appreciate people’s love of what I do with the guitar. That’s an achievement as far as I’m concerned, and I’m proud of it. But I’d rather people remember me as a decent human being than as a flashy guitar player. That’s the way I feel about it.”
Doc’s last performance at Merlefest: The festival dedicatd to his son Merle:
1991: Deep River Blues (Solo)
Doc & Merle Watson
Doc Watson Backstage at Mountain Stage Interview (2010)
LISTEN TO OUR TRIBUTE MIX: THE MOUNTAINS AND THE DOC