(Editor’s Note: The world of traditional American music – and many local residents – mourn the passing of multiple Grammy award winner Doc Watson of Deep Gap on Tuesday, May 29. His music will continue to resound in these hills for generations to come. He was 89.)
Doc’s highway winds down from the North Carolina High Country to Wilkesboro, where 70,000 fans recently feted traditional roots music at the festival Doc helped start in 1988. He insisted it be named after his son Merle, and in just 20 years MerleFest has transformed the musical landscape worldwide.
The Doc and Merle Watson Scenic Byway – US Hwy. 421 – also runs due west to Boone, where 12 years ago a rag tag group of teens jammed for coins in front of Boone Drug, playing old-timey mountain music. They watched the elderly gentleman being helped inside to the lunch counter, then back out again.
“You boys are good!” Doc Watson said. He put them on the list for the next MerleFest and now the members of Old Crow Medicine Show are international recording and performing stars.
Not more than a block away in Boone, Doc had started his own career busking for pennies back in 1950, helping to support his family of nine brothers and sisters. He remembers being aided by some good old boys from Potterstown who kept the police from rousting him.
“I wasn’t ashamed of that (money) cup; I was selling something and people wanted to buy it.” – Doc Watson
Unlike many blind musicians, Doc never wore dark glasses in front of his audiences. Fans noted something else, as one observer succinctly put it. “He never made mistakes.”
The road took him off the mountain, traveling to New York City, California, then around the globe, where he garnered a legion of fans who had never heard of Appalachia. Doc would ultimately tally more than 50 recordings, eight Grammys and broader acclaim than any other performer this side of Bruce Springsteen.
But Doc’s highway ultimately carried him back to Deep Gap, to wife Rosa Lee, daughter Nancy, and the home – just a few turns off his road – where he was born and raised.
Neither his unparalleled accomplishments nor the return to the humblest of origins surprised Asheville’s David Holt, one of Doc Watson’s closest friends and collaborators, and a vital musical force in his own right. Indeed it is that combination of towering talent and devotion to his roots that makes Doc, in Holt’s words, “the most important folk musician in American history.”
Holt shares two of Doc’s Grammys, one for the seminal work ‘Legacy’ that was recorded in Asheville in 2004. ‘Legacy’ is a blend of story, retrospection and music, highlighting how Appalachian tradition, with the right hands and voices, translates its universal truths into any language.
”He has opened up a wide audience to a little-known musical style, changed the way music is played and influenced thousands of musicians,” Holt said.
Those who have tracked Doc’s journey find themselves following his path on both a personal and professional level. “Doc never let the big-time go to his head,” according to Tommy Walsh, director of the MusicFest at Sugar Grove, Doc’s own local festival.
(Walsh also manages the Doc Watson Museum on the festival site, and remembers a volunteer at the first event gesticulating wildly. “Look, them boys are jumping the creek!” Not holding tickets, but gunny sacks with their instruments peeking out. Walsh “figured if they needed to come in that bad I would let them.” Those boys, as he later learned, were the yet unknown Old Crow Medicine Show, hell-bent to see Doc).
His professional honoraria may be legion, but they frame only the narrow margins of Doc Watson’s road home. The rich deep voice, subtle ironies of story, and assurance of deeper meanings are what have always invited Doc’s fellow travelers to the wider horizon.
Gigging steadily throughout the 1950s he had gained regional acclaim through both his prowess and home-grown appeal. “His instrumental solos tell a story,” Holt said. “They are complex, subtle and always engaging. He had the ability to listen deeply and fully inhabit every note he plays.”
He played his signature acoustic guitar, banjo, and harmonica (his first instrument) for the old-time repertoire, but also enjoyed a spell picking a Les Paul electric guitar with a rockabilly band. It was during this time that Doc’s professional life took its pivotal turn. New York musicologist Ralph Rinzler, trolling for talent at the Union Grove Fiddle Festival in 1960 (like Doc still going strong in 2009) asked banjoist Clarence Ashley who he might want to accompany him on a recording. Rinzler later told local (Todd) filmmaker Kevin Balling - who co-wrote, directed and produced the definitive 1996 documentary ‘Doc and Merle’ - that in the always strong field of mountain players, Doc stood out a mile down the road. It wasn’t just his stellar voice and musicianship, but “Doc had this capacity to reach out, and feel,” Rinzler said.
Holt agrees; “not only is he a great guitarist but … the soulfulness and range of his baritone makes an old song seem new, and a new song seem old.”
“My style just happened.” - Doc Watson
It was Rinzler who took Doc out of the mountains and into the cities, back with him to New York (after getting him to lose the rockabilly outfits and the plugged in guitar). He told him that young urban folk audiences were hungry for traditional American music. At the first gig, and the next, and virtually every one for the next 50 years, the audience response would be electric.
“Doc, I think they just feel sorry for us hillbillies,” Ashley said after the first long standing ovation at their inaugural performance at Gerde’s Folk City in the Big Apple.
“It was amazing to me that city people would like our music.” - Doc Watson
Rinzler also recorded him for the first time, and with that Doc was rolling on his own way.
Onward to Newport, Rhode Island, where in its fourth year the Newport Folk Festival had become the premiere showcase for the American Root Renaissance. Doc’s solo performance brought rave national reviews, no mean feat at a venue where Bob Dylan and Joan Baez were holding court as well.
From there Doc would often travel by himself touring on the road, leaving the whistle of whippoorwills for the sirens of the big city. Rinzler and manager Manny Greenhill arranged for volunteers to meet him at the bus stations and get him to the hotel, then the gig. And then the solo return and long dark blur of hours on the Greyhound back to Boone.
In 1949 his son Merle (named after stellar fingerpicker Merle Travis) was born, but Doc still traveled to play and pay the bills. In the early 1960s Doc would return home from a series of performances to find that Rosa Lee had taught the teenager the guitar. Merle took to it as fast and clean as his father had done, but added stylistic touches all his own. He used fingerpicks in favor of flatpicking, and playing a slinky slide to boot. Just a few months later Merle remembered that “I knew six chords and dad suddenly told me he needed me to play backup … in front of about 12,000 people.”
As the folk boom waned in the late ‘60’s Doc faced dwindling interest in traditional music that would doom other folk musicians’ careers. But he was hearing the possibilities in the sounds of electrified country rock played by top acts like ‘The Byrds’ and ‘The Band’. In 1971 he was invited to help lead a concept recording being put together by one of the hot new groups on the scene, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. The time was right to break new ground, a time to bring the next generation of players and fans in touch with some of the icons of the grassroots that had inspired the first groundswell in the hardscrabble years.
That LP, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’, shattered every musical mold, integrating the hippie flavoring of the Dirt Band with perhaps the greatest gathering of country and bluegrass artists ever assembled; Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Earl Scruggs, and a then-unknown fiddle maestro named Vassar Clements. Doc would play not only guitar but host and diplomat, making sure that the long hair and mismatched socks of the Dirt Band members didn’t send Acuff in particular around the bend and straight out the door.
With the LP’s release and huge success, Doc could count on thousands of new fans, so he followed it up with 10 more years of hard touring, now joined by Merle and bass player T. Michael Coleman. They played it all; bluegrass, blues, old-time, Celtic, country, ragtime, jazz and gospel. Doc never looked to tire of it, seeming to bring the peace of the mountains along with him.
But Merle, while adding layers and dimensions of new musical directions to Doc’s steady baseline, never enjoyed the performing part of the business that much, and was growing road weary.
He moved even further out of the limelight, down to his own farm outside Lenoir.
Only a few years after Merle’s fatal accident in 1985, Doc would find the means he wanted to honor his son’s memory; MerleFest. This annual festival would bring together the now worldwide community of musicians and fans dedicated to America’s great gift to global culture, the stunning range of musical styles coming to be known as ‘Americana’.
Or as Doc calls it; “Traditional plus.”
“B” Townes, Wilkes Community College vice-president for development and past MerleFest executive director, has watched Doc’s career since helping him found the festival.
“After Ralph Rinzler discovered him, Doc continued to have a profound effect on the character and flavor of the region’s music,” Townes said. “And on another level, Doc has been a model and a teacher to me, not just about music but about personal values.” Both Doc and Merlefest “have extended the reach” of that music, he said.
As he continued to record, perform and present MerleFest every year, Doc was cementing his place in musical history, and the honors were stacking up. He played for President Jimmy Carter, the scene of one of Doc’s most classic quotes.
“I never played for a president before … you make me nervous, buddy.” – Doc Watson
In 1988 he was awarded a prestigious Folk Heritage Award from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA). That was followed in 1997 by the even more exclusive NEA Medal of the Arts, with the honorees chosen and presented the medal by President Bill Clinton.
Only six artists in American history (Doc, Earl Scruggs, Ralph Stanley, B.B. King, Lydia Mendoza and Lalo Guerrero) have won both, according to Barry Burgee, NEA Director of Folk and Traditional Arts.
“Although Doc is often described as an old time musician, he has always been both an innovator and a keeper of tradition,” Burgee said. “Doc gained a reputation on the circuit because he was one of the first performers to flawlessly flat pick fiddle tunes on the guitar at a pace no one had heard before, but he seemed just as happy singing ballads and gospel songs in a relaxed setting at home with members of his family. His popularity as a public performer comes, I think, from the fact that he was able to combine his broad repertoire and technical excellence with a relaxed informal style that made audiences feel they were in the presence of both a great artist and a friend.”
Doc would win Grammys (showcased during Musicfest in the Doc Watson Museum in Sugar Grove) in 1973, 1974, 1975, 1979, 1986, 1990, 2002 and 2006, a run unparalleled by any other musician. In 2004 he was presented with a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys by the National Academy of the Recording Arts and Sciences. That same year the section of U.S. Highway 421 running through Deep Gap was designated the Doc and Merle Watson Highway.
“I‘m real proud of that. More than any other award I ever got, even the Medal of Arts at the White House. People will forget about that Medal of Arts … but people will see that sign there on the highway. It will be there when my grandchildren and great-grandchildren are still here.” – Doc Watson
Beyond that, Doc declined to speak much if at all about what he had accomplished. But Holt thinks it is important to put the work of such an artist, and cultural ambassador, into the proper perspective.
“Doc Watson is simply one of America’s great musicians … he is in the pantheon of giants.”
On the personal level, perhaps no one has assessed his import or said it better than Pete Seeger, who like dozens of the top American musicians has sat and picked with Doc in his living room in Deep Gap. “When I think of Doc and Rosa Lee it gives me hope for the world,” Seeger said.
Miles Tager is a writer in Ashe County. He wrote the grant designating U.S 421 between Deep Gap and Boone the Doc & Merle Watson Scenic Byway.