Three years ago, when Arthel “Doc” Watson died at age 89, music fans acknowledged his formidable influence as one of the giants of 20th-century folk guitar. But Hillsborough author Robbin Gourley had a different thought about him.
“Given who Doc Watson was, a blind musician, it seemed like he was a perfect story of someone who overcame adversity to go on to do something brilliant and great,” Gourley said. “It sounded like a great, great story for children.”
Thus we have the new children’s book, “Talkin’ Guitar: A Story of Young Doc Watson” (Clarion/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt). Written and illustrated by Gourley, it’s centered on Watson’s early years growing up in the North Carolina mountains, imagined as a brightly colored universe.
Watson was born in 1923, and about the only photographs you see of him as a youngster are in sepia-toned black-and-white. But Gourley illustrated “Talkin’ Guitar” with bright pastel paintings – except for the one black page that introduces his sightlessness with text saying, “Maybe it was because he was blind.” That contrast was by design.
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“It’s a saturated, rich, colorful palette, to contrast the fact he didn’t see,” Gourley said. “There’s some sort of psychological play in there. I think that black page will intrigue a 7-year-old because everybody remembers closing their eyes as a kid and wondering, ‘What would it be like to be blind?’”
Sunday of this weekend is the closing day of Merlefest, the annual folk-festival shindig in North Wilkesboro started up in honor of the late Merle Watson – Doc’s son and playing partner until his untimely death in a tractor accident in 1985 at age 36. From the festival’s first year in 1988 to Doc’s last appearance in 2012, his Saturday-night all-star jams and Sunday-morning gospel sets were annual highlights.
To the end of his life, Watson was a remarkable musician. He rose to prominence during the folk revival of the early 1960s, playing fiddle tunes on guitar with unmatched speed and precision.
Though he was never a big seller, Watson earned numerous accolades over his career, including a 2004 lifetime-achievement Grammy. But for all that, Watson always stayed pointedly humble and disliked other people making a fuss over him.
“Doc didn’t put others on a pedestal, and it made him uncomfortable when other people did that to him,” said David Holt, who was Watson’s onstage foil for 15 years. “He’d rather talk about life and what he was doing, what was happening to him and happening to you. He definitely had that feeling of ‘just people.’”
Author Gourley, now 63, was born in Statesville, about 60 miles away from Watson’s Deep Gap hometown. She’s been a fan of Watson since her college days at N.C. State’s School of Design.
“He had the most mellow and wonderful manner about him,” Gourley said of Watson. “That baritone, his wit, the way he talked to audiences, the stories he told between songs. It was as if he was talking just to you. There was something so familiar and warm about him and that endeared him to so many people.”
Painting a tale
Gourley recently took up residence in Hillsborough with her husband, Jeffrey Stern, an Emmy-winning television sound editor. Before that, they lived in New York City, where Gourley worked as art and creative director for children’s book publishers including Highlights, FSG and HarperCollins.
“Talkin’ Guitar” is Gourley’s third children’s book, following 2008’s “Bring Me Some Apples and I’ll Make You a Pie: A Story About Edna Lewis” and 2011’s “First Garden: The White House Garden and How It Grew.”
Typically, Gourley will do painting after painting in search of the right look. For “Talkin’ Guitar,” she used her cousin’s son as a model for the young Watson, with a few instruments borrowed from a Burlington music store along with her own memories of North Carolina’s mountains for backdrops.
“I tend to do a lot of paintings until I get it right,” Gourley said on a recent afternoon in her studio, riffling through a pile of half-finished paintings that didn’t make the cut. “Here are a lot of attempts at landscapes I started. Seems like I did a million of those but didn’t use any of ’em.”
As for content, Gourley did some research and focused on a few well-known pieces of Watson’s history – such as how he earned money to buy his first guitar by cutting down trees with his brother with a crosscut saw. She came away from her research impressed by his ingenuity.
“There’s a story about how Doc would walk down the road measuring the distance between fence poles,” Gourley said. “He could tell when he was walking by a pole from the sound and the space between. He’s an easy person to love, all the stories about his courage and virtuosity and gift.
“I hope the book does him justice and that people like it,” she added. “My other books were more long-winded, but I tried to write this one very short and descriptive, with second-graders in mind. Kids can be a super-tough crowd.”