The one and only time I ever got to meet Doc Watson was about a decade ago, at a Cracker Barrel restaurant near Clayton. Having watched and listened to the flat-picking legend for years, I was predictably starstruck. And as we shook hands, I said, Its an honor to meet you, sir.
That turned out to be a mistake, because Doc was having none of it.
Aw, Im just people, he drawled, bristling a bit. Just like you.
That was pretty typical for Watson, who always wanted to be just the ol boy from up the road even though he was much more than that. Watson was as iconic a figure as North Carolina ever produced, both on his own and as half of a duo with his son Merle (who died in a 1985 tractor accident). Its hard to imagine modern folk and old-time music without the influence of his flat-picking, and he did it all in spite of his blindness. But even after playing the worlds greatest stages and rubbing elbows with presidents and rock stars, Watson never lost his sense of humble modesty.
Before his death last month at age 89, Watson was scheduled to perform one final show at the N.C. Museum of Art, where he played many fine shows over the years. Even though he wont be there, the show is going on as a memorial concert and symposium featuring many of his associates and fellow players.
We asked some of the participants to share their thoughts and memories of Doc.
Id like to make a record with you
One of my best highlights of running Sugar Hill Records was the day I answered the phone, and Doc was on the line. Son, he said, I like the music I hear on your label and Id like to make a record with you. Doc represented everything I wanted the label to be about passion, excellence, authenticity so that was the ultimate for me. We made that record, and Im happy to say a dozen more, two of which won Grammy Awards. The first one, I was watching on TV and saw it flash across the screen. I called Doc all excited: Guess what, you just won a Grammy! Youre watching, right? Hold on, he said, and changed the channel. He had Love Boat or something on instead.
Founder, Sugar Hill Records
A 21-guitar day
My dad had a music store in Boone, and I remember Doc coming in there since I was about 8 years old. Even then, hed sit and play with me. I was always amazed at his generosity. Every Christmas eve, hed come play in the store. Christmas songs, things like that. One time, my dad sold 21 guitars when Doc was in there playing. I think everybody thought they could go home and play like that themselves. He was a huge influence on me, then and later the way hed make everybody onstage feel at home. As a musician, the best compliment you could have was for Doc to look over in your direction and say, Play it, son! It didnt get any better than that.
Pianist who frequently played with Watson (and was a pallbearer at his funeral)
Fast as greased lightning
It does not seem possible, but I knew Doc for 65 years. I remember seeing him and Brian Adams on pedal steel playing a school dance at Valle Crucis. Doc was playing an electric guitar with a Woody Woodpecker decal on it back then, and theyd play fiddle tunes at greased-lightning speed, faster than anybody else on Earth could do. After he was discovered and got to touring, that really changed his world. Doc always had a soaring mind. He had all the skills of traditional music from learning those old fiddle tunes, but he was always ready and willing to reach beyond that. Hed listen to the radio and he could play jazz like Tal Farlow or Johnny Smith, just rap those out on guitar. Then in his later years, hed say, Dont ask me to do that stuff, son, youll ruin my image. He was an incredibly sophisticated musician who also recognized the value of the legend that (folklorist) Ralph Rinzler promulgated: Doc as this mountain guitar player who can play better n any of you yahoos. He was a natural genius at all of that.
Founder, Blue Ridge Music Center concert venue near Galax, Va.
Audiences felt his energy
Outside of my father, he was my original inspiration as a guitar player the first I really pursued and emulated. When it comes to bluegrass guitar flat-picking, Doc is kind of the well for most people, including me. Everything I heard after that was reflected through the Doc lens. He had a really good perspective due to his handicap. He was very strong-willed and never brought much pomp to it or put on any airs. I know it made him feel weird to be a star figure, but he took it all in stride. And you could tell he loved it, too. The audience always felt his energy and love for the music. After Merle died, it was hard for him to go on and perform with that honesty. Doc had to pull from deep within to get back out there. He felt a responsibility to be equal to it, but he still never wanted to be the center of attention.
Six-time winner, International Bluegrass Music Associations Guitar Player of the Year
He made old music live
I was not really even interested in traditional music until I heard Doc play when I was about 20 years old, and it was incredibly compelling. At the time, I couldnt even put my finger on why. Listening now, I realize that he was putting very creative, almost contemporary sounds into old-time music. What moved me wasnt so much his guitar-playing, though it was extraordinary, but his ability to reach back and get at old music in such a way that he made it live. Hearing him was so powerful that I quit college, took up fiddle and guitar and went looking for musicians to try and learn from. Eventually I got into documenting them, which led to the full-time career I have now. Its something I felt compelled to do, so Im hugely indebted to Doc. I would not be where I am today if I hadnt heard his music.
Executive director, N.C. Arts Council
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