I saw Doc Watson for the last time in late July of 2011 at the Ryman Auditorium, a place I’d seen him perform magnificently on at least two prior occasions. The venue was ideal, but Doc was not in perfect shape. At the time he was 88 years old, and he showed signs of decline. He lost his place in several tunes and struggled with lyrics that he’d been singing for decades. But he got rolling nicely on his acoustic version of Merle Haggard’s “Working Man Blues” and then he sang “I Am A Pilgrim” with the life-affirming calm and inner light that defined him. It was reassuring. He also sang a verse of that song I didn’t know:
"Now when they laid me down for the last time
With these tired hands resting on my breast
I don't want none of that all weeping and crying over me
because you know this old boy is going to rest."
I don’t mean to contradict a good man’s sincere wishes, but that’s not so easy right now.
My fascination with Doc and my eventual immersion in his musical oeuvre and worldview came as one of the great surprises of my life. In high school I cared about alternative pop music, jazz and classical. I was raised academic and suburban, far removed from the Smoky Mountains or the big city folk centers. I studied the violin (not the fiddle) and then adopted drums and enough bass to make money in rock bands in college. I had nothing against country music or bluegrass, but I had little clue about it. The one local fellow who threw down with guitar, fiddle and song in front of large audiences when I was young was Mike Cross. I’d see him on the Fourth of July and he was appealing. But all along, every now and then, somebody would drop this Doc Watson name. And eventually it felt as if I could just understand THIS guy, that a lot about folk music would fall into place. I began to feel ignorant for being from the same state with a national icon and not knowing. So sometime around my freshman year summer back in North Carolina I noted a Doc Watson show in the town of Pinehurst, not too far away. I knew Pinehurst for its reputation as a golfer’s paradise and as the place my family had carted me one day for a tedious and bizarre afternoon of breeding our dog with another in a parking lot. I’m pleased that was replaced by “place I saw Doc Watson for the first time.”
He played on a slightly elevated stage in a back yard of a stately home to an audience of just a couple hundred people. It was a duo gig with Jack Lawrence. The music flowed like sunshine and the guitars wove around one another in a Bach-like fugue. I was amazed in some way I couldn’t have described at the time. I didn’t have a lightning bolt epiphany that I must play acoustic guitar, though that would come. I think I experienced, however, a kind of respect I’d not known before. The universal quality of Doc’s manner and sound, which I would come to understand in an intellectual way later on, had reached out across a gulf of experience and background and scooped me up.
When Earl Scruggs died just over a month ago (and I long believed they’d go close together for all of the kinships and the very nearby birthdates) we heard legions of folks say they pursued the banjo because of Earl. And I’m one of the thousands who pursued the guitar because of Doc. I started buying the records (Riding The Midnight Train was my first scriptural LP) and seeing him when I could, and it was just a matter of time before I was practicing those runs, rhythm patterns and fiddle tunes. He not only showed me something incredibly exciting I’d never seen or imagined in his speed and technique, he made the instrument accessible. My encounters with acoustic guitar before Doc had been mostly frustrating, because it’s hard on the fingers for a good while but even more because I didn’t really know what I hoped to DO with it. Doc solved that problem.
I’ve fallen in love with a lot of guitarists in my life, make no mistake. I collect favorite guitar players like bad habits. But nobody spoke to me or guided my path on my ultimate instrument like Doc. Because he played with a pick AND with his fingers. Depending on the tune, Doc could render a lacy ragtime dance with a driving thumb beat. Or he could skate and skitter in perfect time at daredevil speeds across the strings with what he called a straight pick. His forearm drove the percussive quality of the picking that would sear “Black Mountain Rag” and “Whiskey Before Breakfast” in my memory. Then he would jangle the strings in almost banjo fashion on “I Am A Pilgrim” or “Deep River Blues.” By the time I got out of college, Doc was my favorite guy on both approaches to acoustic guitar.
Had he been merely the world’s greatest folk guitarist, Doc’s death would not have set the internet and news media ablaze as it did. For all of his chops, I think it was his way with a song that endeared him to mainstream culture. I didn’t get the depth and value of his voice right away, I’ll admit, but he became one of my favorite singers across all genres. As his elegantly unadorned voice grew on me, it grew into me. I had been conditioned to think of singing as something that elevated the singer over the audience – something they could do better than you. Doc sang on a normal, mortal level. Plainspoken doesn’t entirely capture it. He had style. He could really yodel. But his voice as ultimately so amazing because it was so trustworthy. Add to that the vast and wide-ranging repertoire of American folk, country and blues music, and Doc became a vehicle for understanding a huge part of American cultural history. He did for me anyway.
Then there was MerleFest, the Wilkes Co., NC festival launched as a tribute to Doc's late son, the amazing musician Merle Watson. My first, I think, was 1993, launching an annual rite of spring that continued for many years. The festival was my college of Americana music, where I was exposed to the breadth of what roots music was becoming, from Peter Rowan to Sam Bush to Leftover Salmon. The eclectic approach mirrored Doc’s own musical philosophy about traditional music – that we should be capable of looking backward and forward at the same time. I saw dozens of significant artists there for the first time: Gillian and Dave, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, Tim O’Brien, and on and on. It was one-stop-shopping for the good stuff. And of course several times each year there were chances to hear Doc Watson perform, usually in collaboration with some of his innumerable friends. The familiar songs accreted into a catalog in my head and heart: “Way Downtown,” “Tennessee Stud,” “Wayfaring Stranger,” “Freight Train Boogie,” “Frankie & Johnny,” “Columbus Stockade Blues,” “Shady Grove,” “Sitting On Top of the World,” and many more. These tunes are sung everywhere, but Doc’s versions are my definitive versions. There are many festivals, but MerleFest will always be my gold standard.
I got to interview him once by phone for a feature in Acoustic Guitar magazine, and I’ll always be grateful for that. The humility that infused his music came from an authentic place:
"I'm not a legend. I'm just someone who enjoyed the music and who enjoyed playing music," Watson says, stressing that his chief motive in taking his music out of his home region and to a recording and touring career was to earn a living for his family, not to get rich or famous. "If you have a handicap and no other vocation, you have to live," he says. "And by doing something I dearly love, I could do that. I'm just one of the people. I sure ain't got my head in the clouds, and I sure don't feel like a celebrity."
No sir. And an interesting choice of words. The years I’ve followed Doc and grown closer to folk and roots music have seen celebrity metastasize in American culture from a pleasant diversion to an industrial beast and a misbegotten religion. Doc’s approach to music, as a simple, joyful, spontaneous connector of human beings has become an anchor for me in a surreal world of propaganda and people famous for their famousness. It feels a little harder to hold a grip on reality without him here. But it’s reassuring to know that even if they shut down the internet, cable or the power grid itself, the only thing keeping the celebritons animate, we could still make music the way Doc showed us how.