The Wealthy Musical Legacy of Doc Watson: A Uncommon Interview with the Legendary Guitarist

The Wealthy Musical Legacy of Doc Watson: A Uncommon Interview with the Legendary Guitarist

This text initially appeared within the March/April 1993 concern of Acoustic Guitar journal and was excerpted for the the September/October 2020 concern | By Stephanie P. Ledgin

For greater than three a long time, Arthel “Doc” Watson has been America’s most famed and influential people guitar stylist. Now about to show 70, he’s principally retired, staying off the highway aside from a half dozen dates a yr. In a sequence of interviews final yr, Watson mirrored on his bittersweet profession, shedding mild on the event of his distinctive type and on the legacy of his late son, Merle, his performing associate for a few years. 

At any given Doc Watson efficiency, one will see and listen to not solely a guitar participant of the best caliber, but additionally an clever, witty, down-to-earth gentleman who likes to share the music of his coronary heart and residential. Watson is a unprecedented entertainer who by no means fails to seize the admiration and affection of his viewers. His concert events are full of sizzling flatpicking tunes, gradual romantic ballads, gutsy blues numbers, and delicately fingerpicked melodies. Every music is sung with unmatched readability, every tune performed with a dexterity that has positioned Doc Watson’s identify within the music historical past books. 

Watson didn’t got down to turn out to be a well-known musician. In truth, if given his druthers, he by no means would have struck out on the highway to make a dwelling as a performer. Whereas music would have been part of his life it doesn’t matter what, carpentry, electrical work, mechanics, and even engineering would have been Watson’s calling of selection . . . if on condition that selection. However a childhood an infection took Watson’s imaginative and prescient by the point he was one yr previous.

Born right into a musical household on March 3, 1923, in Deep Hole, North Carolina, Doc Watson refers to his blindness solely as a hindrance, not as a incapacity. However he provides quietly that he regrets not having the ability to see the grins on the faces of his family members. 

It’s these family members who instilled in Watson the standard people music of his native area. As Watson places it, “I minimize my enamel on it. Mom used to sing a couple of of the previous ballads, and Dad was a singing chief within the little church from the time I can keep in mind. He performed a little bit of previous­time banjo. I had a brother that might choose some old-time banjo, and there have been of us that lived round there that performed a bunch of the old-time music. I acquired a very good little bit of my repertoire first-hand from a number of the old-timers—fiddle tunes, ballads. However a variety of it got here from early 78 [rpm] recordings and early radio.” 

Watson’s father, Common Dixon Watson, offered his first devices. “My very first instrument was a bit of harmonica,” he recollects. “It was just like the one I used to be enjoying ‘Milk Cow Blues’ on on the market [at the concert that evening]—the identical kind. I acquired one each Christmas way back to I can keep in mind. And generally if I used to be a very good boy, I acquired one for my birthday, as a result of I often wore them out fairly fast as a child or misplaced them someplace! 

“The primary stringed instrument I had was a bit of do-it-yourself banjo that Dad made for me once I was 11. Then my first guitar got here alongside once I was about 13. Although it was my second [stringed instrument], it was my old flame as an instrument.”

Watson recollects his earliest enjoying makes an attempt. “Dad confirmed me a couple of tunes on the previous five-string. It was a fretless, and it was very arduous to play true notes on. Then the unique Carter Household—Sarah and Maybelle—had been the primary guitar affect. The very first thing I discovered was the previous Carter Household type, utilizing a thumbpick and a strum with the fingers. Maybelle Carter performed the lead on the bass strings along with her thumb and did the rhythmic strum along with her fingers. Then Jimmie Rodgers got here proper alongside; that good full-strum sound he performed with a thumb lead and a finger strum.” 

Watson continues, “Then I acquired into flatpicking. I ordered a guitar from Sears and Roebuck, and there got here a ebook with it with completely different little songs in there that you would flatpick. It confirmed the old-time jazz guitarist Nick Lucas; it confirmed how he held his choose. My youngest brother, David, confirmed me how Lucas held his choose, and that’s how I discovered to carry mine. However I found out that if you happen to’re going to play good flatpicking, you need to study a good up-and-­down stroke on the strings. That’s step one in studying. However I by no means tried to do an excessive amount of lead with the flatpick till I started to listen to Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Hank was a jazz guitar participant, however within the early days he performed some nation music up in Nashville with Pink Foley and completely different folks. I heard them play fiddle tunes and I believed, ‘By golly, if they’ll do this, I can.’ 

“I needed to put in a bit of work on it. I discovered a couple of issues throughout the sq. dance and rockabilly days within the ’50s. Then, once I switched again over to the flattop within the early ’60s throughout the people scare, as Michael [Coleman] calls it, I started to essentially work arduous on the fiddle tunes, ’trigger I came upon folks like ’em!”

Watson’s earliest influences had been vast and different, primarily launched by the household’s “graphophone,” as they known as their windup Victrola. He recollects his early experiences with blues: “There was a document or two by [Mississippi] John Damage, Furry Lewis, a number of the different blues artists. I believe we had one with Skip James and the Memphis Jug Stompers. The blues had been there; it was a part of the background. And when Merle began on the highway with me, he liked the blues, I believe higher than I did. We simply naturally included blues within the repertoire as we went alongside. It turned a really large a part of our units. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee furthered the trigger so far as Merle and I had been involved. We discovered a variety of songs from these boys. They had been actually a superb crew.” 

Not solely did Watson come from a musical background, however he married into one other household of music when he wed Rosa Lee Carlton, whose father, Gaither Carlton, was a fiddler with whom Watson performed regional hymns and ballads. Doc and Rosa Lee Watson had two youngsters, Eddie Merle, named after guitar nice Merle Travis, and Nancy Ellen. [Editor’s note: In 2020, an album of early ’60s recordings of Doc and Gaither Carlton was released.]

Watson had supported his household together with his music because the early ’50s, enjoying in a rustic dance band on an electrical Gibson Les Paul. All of the whereas he continued to play the standard acoustic music of his residence area with Tom “Clarence” Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Worth. 

It was whereas performing with Ashley, Howard, and Worth at Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1960 that the now-legendary assembly of folklorist Ralph Rinzler and Doc Watson came about. Rinzler’s discovery of Watson led to Watson touring the coffeehouse circuit within the Northeast and finally taking him to the stage of the Newport People Pageant in 1963, the place he was embraced enthusiastically by the folks neighborhood, younger and previous. That look and a historic live performance with the daddy of bluegrass, Invoice Monroe, at City Corridor in New York Metropolis in 1964 paved the best way for Watson’s first recording contract. 

That very same yr marked what was to be one other momentous event. Upon returning residence from a tour, Watson discovered that his son, Merle, had taken up the guitar. Rosa Lee had taught Merle his first chords, and Merle, as Watson says, “simply took it and went with it. 

“The primary time Merle ever went to a pageant with me was the Berkeley People Pageant in 1964. He was 15. When he went on the stage with me, he had been pickin’ the guitar three months, and he performed backup guitar for me on the entire set. He met John Damage on that journey and started to do a bunch of fingerstyle issues, then issues of his personal notion, and picked up a few John’s tunes. I don’t keep in mind how lengthy it was earlier than he started to essentially work on flatpicking, however he did it the best way he thought it should be. When you’ve seen his flatpicking type, it was a bit of completely different from mine. I taught him melodies of issues that I’d need him to study, however he’d get off in a nook and do it the best way he needed to; tunes like ‘Salt Creek’ or ‘Nancy Rowland,’ a few of these previous tunes.”

From a listener’s standpoint, it was straightforward to differentiate which Watson was selecting a specific break with out truly seeing who it was, as a result of the youthful Watson so shortly developed his personal distinctive sound. 

In speaking about his personal enjoying, Watson typically refers to “Doc type.” However one could be hard-pressed to position a exact definition on his guitar method. “Doc type” isn’t just a selecting technique; it’s additionally his real, heat, down-home persona and his supply. As Watson says, “Stage presence is all the things, one thing some individuals are simply fortunate sufficient to be born with.” 

Persevering with about his type, Watson emphasizes, “So long as I’ve been selecting professionally, I’ve been placing my very own notions into the music. No matter tune I play, I play the best way I play it. I’ll have tried to repeat a couple of issues once I first discovered them, however only a few issues. I’ve purposely tried my finest to repeat each lick Smitty performed on the early Ernest Tubb recordings. [Fay “Smitty” Smith was Tubb’s first electric lead player.] He was a jazz guitar participant turned nation. God, I liked his guitar selecting! Whew, did I ever! Smitty didn’t do something actual fancy, they had been simply fairly little ripply licks, little triplets thrown in, a variety of them had been simply little pull-off rolls.”

Watson mentions a couple of different guitar inspirations. “For years, Chet [Atkins] was my idol. I lastly found out that I can’t play three-finger type or four-finger type like he does—actually, bodily can’t do it. I don’t have the span, the attain that he has on the neck of the guitar. However I nonetheless love to listen to the person play. Merle Travis, oh, God, I liked his music. The Delmore Brothers, um-um! I suppose I preferred each guitar participant that I listened to, however there’s some on the prime of the record, like Chet, Merle, Smitty, Hank Garland. I like George Benson just about. And my son, Merle, in fact. He was one of the best slide participant I ever heard in my life—I imply, Duane Allman and all the remainder of them thrown in. Merle was the quickest, performed the truest notes. And he was no slouch fingerstyle guitar participant both. And Merle, as you seen on the Remembering Merle CD, might flatpick when he needed to. 

“What impressed me probably the most about Merle’s guitar enjoying was the tasteful type that he had developed and his capability to study in a short time,” Watson provides. “He was a a lot sooner learner than I ever was. These are the issues that impressed me a lot. He didn’t should play 900 notes to make you want what he did,” he says, laughing, “if you happen to’ll pardon a very good wholesome determine there!” 

Merle Watson had a quiet however very seen presence. Onstage, the youthful Watson would hear intently to the notes round him and reply together with his personal. He would typically choose together with his eyes closed and his head cocked down towards his guitar to listen to higher and focus on the crystal­-clear notes he was selecting. As he slid out of a break, an exquisite, glad smile would come throughout his face. 

His father’s performing and enterprise associate for greater than 20 years, Merle Watson performed guitar, banjo, and slide guitar alongside his dad and produced most of their recordings. He recorded his first album together with his father a mere eight months after strumming his first chord. They went on to document greater than 20 albums collectively, successful 4 Grammy awards alongside the best way. (Doc has since gained two extra.) Merle’s experience on the guitar not solely equaled that of the elder Watson, many within the business thought of Merle to be a good finer picker. Merle’s life ended tragically in a tractor accident at his farm on October 23, 1985. 

“Merle liked music,” Watson relates quietly. “He was an entertainer. Merle’s stage presence . . . effectively, simply taking a look at Merle and that smile and figuring out he was up there was half his presentation, and his music was the opposite half. I at all times thought that from what folks stated; I couldn’t see that, in fact. He’d flash that smile and also you knew he was up there!”

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 Doc Watson died on Might 29, 2012, at 89.

5 Doc Watson albums price testing: The Best of Doc Watson, 1964-68; Never the Same Way Once (Doc and Merle stay), Doc & Merle Watson’s Guitar Album; Trouble in Mind: The Doc Watson Country Blues Collection; Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection.

This text initially appeared within the March/April 1993 concern of Acoustic Guitar journal and was reprinted within the September/October 2020 concern.

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