Remembering Doc Watson

dmenconi@newsobserver.comJune 23, 2012 

  • About the panels Early Influences and the Beginning of a Brilliant Career (10:30 a.m.-noon). The panel will examine the roots of Doc Watson’s artistry in the music and culture of the Blue Ridge Mountains. • Featuring Wayne Martin, director of the N.C. Arts Council; Joe Wilson, former director of the National Council for the Traditional Arts; David Holt, musician-storyteller who accompanied Watson on the road since 1998; and David Watson, Doc’s brother. The Folk Revival and Beyond (1-2:15 p.m.). In which Watson becomes a major star of the early-’60s urban-folk scene, playing a key role in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s landmark 1972 album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” • Featuring Wilson; Holt; Robert Cantwell, UNC professor of American studies and author of “Bluegrass Breakdown”; and Barry Poss, founder of Sugar Hill Records. The Music (2:30-4 p.m.). Tracing Watson’s far-flung influence on subsequent generations, with his former playing partners breaking down the technical particulars. • Featuring Holt; Bryan Sutton, whose playing style was strongly influenced by Watson; Wayne Henderson, one of Watson’s favorite picking buddies; and Jeff Little, whose Appalachian piano style was heavily influenced by Watson’s guitar technique.
  • Details What: Celebrating Doc, concert and symposium honoring Doc Watson Where: N.C. Museum of Art, 2110 Blue Ridge Road, Raleigh When: Panel discussions from 10:30 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday, concert at 8 p.m. Saturday Cost: $11-$35 for the concert. Admission to the symposiums is free; ticket from box office required. Info:ncartmuseum.org or 919-839-6262

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, “It’s an honor to meet you, sir.”

That turned out to be a mistake, because Doc was having none of it.

“Aw, I’m 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). It’s 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 world’s 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 won’t 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.

‘I’d 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 I’d 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 I’m 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! You’re watching, right?’ ‘Hold on,’ he said, and changed the channel. He had ‘Love Boat’ or something on instead.”
Barry Poss
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, he’d sit and play with me. I was always amazed at his generosity. Every Christmas eve, he’d 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 he’d 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 didn’t get any better than that.”
Jeff Little
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 they’d 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. He’d 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, he’d say, ‘Don’t ask me to do that stuff, son, you’ll 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.”
Joe Wilson
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.”
Bryan Sutton
Six-time winner, International Bluegrass Music Association’s 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 couldn’t 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 wasn’t 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. It’s something I felt compelled to do, so I’m hugely indebted to Doc. I would not be where I am today if I hadn’t heard his music.”
Wayne Martin
Executive director, N.C. Arts Council

Menconi: 919-829-4759 or blogs.newsobserver.com/beat

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