R.I.P. Doc Watson, America's Greatest Folk Guitar Player
Doc Watson, who died Tuesday at 89, was the greatest folk guitar player the country ever produced. There were other folk/country/pop legends on the scene -- Merle Travis and Chet Atkins come to mind - but Doc out played them all with an encyclopedic repertoire that included folk, country, blues, bluegrass, old time music, pop standards, rockabilly, gospel, and even rock 'n' roll.
My guitar-playing pal Lou Pakula, who was inspired to start flat-picking after seeing Watson live, introduced me to Doc's music. One evening, he played me Doc's first Vanguard album, Doc Watson. I wasn't sure I wanted to hear it. I thought country music was an embarrassment, but the minute I heard Doc singing "Sitting on Top of the World," I realized there was as much soul in country music as there was in doo-wop and the Chicago blues. His rumbling baritone was full of understated emotion and the ironic lyric was downright literary. When "Black Mountain Rag" came tumbling out of the speakers, my jaw dropped. The clear rippling single-note runs and rolling bass notes Watson got out of the guitar stopped my world. How could one man, and a blind man at that, play so much music? In interviews, Watson's technique astounded himself. "It just runs right out of the end of my fingers," he said.
I don't know how many times I saw Doc over the years -- first at Gerde's Folk City in New York, playing to a handful of folk nuts and college students in a mostly empty club, then at Carnegie Hall concerts and festivals performing for thousands of fans. He never played a sour note, never sang off key, and never stopped smiling. He obviously enjoyed the music, and had a seemingly endless repertoire, but it was his knowledge of folk, country, gospel and old time music that made him a star, although I doubt he would have been comfortable with the label.
Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina and went blind before his first birthday. Being blind never slowed him down, and by the time he was 13 he was playing banjo, harmonica, and guitar and performing on street corners for money with his older brother Linney. He got his professional start playing electric guitar in cover bands doing country, rock, Texas swing, and pop music, although he played folk and country standards on a Martin D-18 at home. In 1960, Ralph Rinzler, a musicologist and member of the Greenbriar Boys, one of the first urban bluegrass groups, "discovered" Doc and brought him to New York. Rinzler arranged Watson's first "folk" concerts and produced his first recording, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's (Folkways). The album was recorded live in Deep Gap living rooms, an uncompromising record without any commercial appeal outside of folk music circles, but it caused a sensation and led to Watson's appearances at the Newport Folk Festival. His early Vanguard albums still sound as fresh as the day they were recorded and include Doc Watson, Southbound, Home Again, and Doc Watson & Son, cut with his oldest boy Merle.
He was one of the few folk artists to remain commercial viable when the folk music boom ended. Watson was introduced to a new generation of listeners when he took part in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's three-LP opus Will the Circle Be Unbroken. While he never became a household name outside of country music and folk, he influenced generations of pickers with his clean, concise style and lightning fast runs. He cut albums with Chet Atkins, including 1980's Reflections (Sugar Hill), won eight Grammys, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004, and was award the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton in 1997. When his son and longtime touring partner Merle Watson died in a farming accident, Doc organized Merlefest in his honor. The festival may be the largest acoustic music gathering in the world with an estimated attendance of 70,000 people. When a statue of Watson was erected in Boone, North Carolina, near one of the places Doc and his brother used to busk, he insisted that the inscription would read, "Just One of the People."
Watson and his small band, featuring grandson Richard on second guitar, kept touring and knocking out audiences until the end.