Doc Watson, The Gray Eminence of Bluegrass

By Tim Warren
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, January 27, 2008

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Doc Watson is at an age when the old-timey songs he plays have a particular poignancy, particularly the church songs that tell of being "carried away" or "going over to the other side." Or think of "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," the song by one of his favorite groups from the 1930s, the Delmore Brothers, with its mournful last verse:

I'm telling this world goodbye/I'm telling this world goodbye/I'm telling the world and my dear little girl/I'll soon tell them all goodbye.

He has had a long and fabulous career, becoming one of the most influential folk musicians of the last half-century, but he is turning 85 on March 2 -- and even Doc Watson cannot go on forever. In the past few years, his deep, warm baritone has cracked when he belts out the yodeling songs of another favorite, Jimmie Rodgers. His guitar runs still astonish, but not as often, and he'll make a fingering mistake that would have been unthinkable in his earlier days, when he practically rewrote the book on playing acoustic guitar.

That's why for Doc Watson fans, the fact that he is still performing is both a blessing and an occasion for anxiety. He has been indomitable, almost superhuman, and his stature in bluegrass, in folk music and in country music cannot be matched.

T. Michael Coleman, who played bass with Watson for 15 years before joining the Seldom Scene, recalled when other famous musicians would encounter Watson. "People like Paul Simon, even, they'd be so nervous," said Coleman, who lives in Bethesda. "One time when we were touring, we ran into [jazz guitarist] Pat Metheny. He was like, 'Oh my God, that's Doc Watson.' He was afraid to say anything. The respect musicians have for him is amazing."

Marty Stuart, the ace mandolin player and champion of traditional music, toured with Watson briefly in the 1970s. At a recent concert, Stuart watched in awe as Watson led several other musicians in an encore: "Here was this silver-haired man, looking like the patron saint of mountain music."

Doc Watson, then, cannot be ordinary. But when asked, some hours before performing here on a Friday night earlier this month, whether this is indeed his last ride, he gave a deep sigh.

He locked his blind eyes on his questioner and said finally, quietly, "I haven't the faintest idea. But I'll have to sooner or later, because my hands can't do this much longer. I can't play like I could 30 or 40 years ago. The speed's not there and the clarity's not there. My reflexes are slowing down, and there's not a thing I can do about it."

* * *

Understandably, there was an air of anticipation before the show in Greensboro. Watson was beginning his 2008 touring schedule with a gig here with frequent collaborator David Holt -- the two will appear tonight at the Birchmere in Alexandria -- and Greensboro, just a few hours' drive from his ancestral mountain house in Deep Gap, afforded a particular home-field advantage.

These were his people, the folks who have seen him perform dozens of times over the years. He also had the perfect venue. The 1,000-seat Carolina Theatre, built in 1922 and handsomely refurbished, is warm and intimate; the marquee advised that the show was sold out.

At 8 o'clock, Holt led Watson onstage to thunderous applause. Holt is a banjoist and folklorist who has immersed himself in Appalachian culture and music since moving from suburban Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He and Watson have been performing together for about 10 years, and Holt functions not only as his musical partner but as his facilitator.

Like Coleman and nearly every other musician who has played with Watson, Holt speaks of him with reverence, and sees performing with him as the musical equivalent of having hit the lottery. "When I was 17, I fell in love with his music," Holt said before the concert. "So to be 61 and having played with him the last 10 years is really special."

They began the show with one of Watson's signature up-tempo numbers, the rollicking "Way Downtown," and the crowd whooped as he dashed off a couple of rippling guitar licks.

When the song was finished, Holt remarked that this happened to be his 33rd wedding anniversary -- "and being a musician, I'm on the road tonight." Then he said, "Doc, when will you and Rosa Lee have your anniversary?"

Since Watson's unabashed devotion to his wife is legendary, this was a fastball served right down the middle of the plate. "In June, we'll be married 62 years," Watson answered proudly, to cheers and more applause. Then he broke into "our courtin' song," the haunting old folk ballad "Shady Grove," and some people in the crowd sang along. When he reached the final verse, his voice cracked -- not from age, it seemed, but from emotion.

A kiss from pretty little Shady Grove/Is sweet as brandy wine/And there ain't no girl in this old world/That's prettier than mine.

By that time, the audience was already won over, but for the next two hours Watson demonstrated why he is a peerless performer. In a variety of settings -- with Holt, by himself, with his grandson Richard Watson and with them both at the end -- Watson moved easily from bluegrass standards to old gospel songs to blues numbers.

Between songs, he bantered with the audience, observing one time that he stopped playing the fiddle "because after 18 months of work, I sounded like a hungry pig." Before an instrumental break, he cracked playfully, "All right, guitar, it's your turn." And he imparted a little of the Philosophy According to Doc Watson, introducing a number this way: "I like pretty little songs -- simply done, down-to-earth, with something to say."

Perhaps the most moving moment came during his singing of the last verse of the gospel song "Stand by Me." In the interview, Watson mentioned that he had rediscovered his faith in the past few years, even being "dipped" in a local creek in a re-baptism ceremony. His earlier recording of "Stand by Me" was quiet, contemplative, but now, onstage in Greensboro, Watson sang it with an insistence that was chilling.

When I'm growing old and feeble/Stand by me/When I'm growing old and feeble/Stand by me/When my life becomes a burden/And I'm nearing chilly Jordan/O thou Lily of the Valley/Stand by me.

As Holt had said earlier, "his worst day is better than 99 percent of the people you could ever see or play with. He's always good, but sometimes he's phenomenal. That's how I think it is at his age -- you get the full burst, and sometimes you get maybe a little bit less. He'll come out onstage when he's sick, but nobody will notice because he always gives 110 percent -- and it looks so effortless."

Watson's performance was all the more remarkable considering that, talking before the concert, he was a mass of raw nerves. Doc Watson the performer seems supremely self-confident, but offstage he is known to be high-strung. "You think he's this laid-back guy," Holt said, "but he's awfully intense."

On this afternoon, Watson seemed fragile, on edge, easily distracted. He misheard some questions and gave answers to others that seemed to come out of left field. At one point, he said with aching directness, "I long for the old days very often."

Holt says Watson is as connected to his emotions as anyone he's ever met -- they're so close to the skin that Watson tears up at the slightest provocation. His voice still cracks when he talks about his son Merle, his musical partner and traveling companion for 20 years, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Rosa Lee is another emotional trigger.

Arthel Watson and Rosa Lee Carlton married in June 1946, when he was 23 and she was 14. To this day, he regularly calls her "my little darlin' " or "my beloved." She kept the family together when he went out on the road alone in the '60s, in the early days of the folk boom. In the interview, he talked lovingly of the time she grew a big garden and then "put up 500 jars of jellies and jams. You talk about a little beaver -- she has been one." But now she is 75, and has been ailing for years.

"Her health is gone," Watson said, without elaborating. "God, it hurts me so bad because I can't do anything about it. I've got the best doctor in the western part of the state to take care of her. She's just been in the hospital for some tests; her appetite's gone and she's losing weight."

His anguish was so evident that it was a relief to move on to other topics. Watson gave a sly grin when asked about a January 1988 interview with The Washington Post, when he announced he would retire shortly. He said at the time: "I'll just be settin' down and enjoyin' myself with an old-time square dance group, playing some backup guitar and some lead. Other than that and eatin' some good barbecue, I'm stayin' home with Rosa Lee."

That was two decades ago. What happened?

"You talk about it, but then you just don't do it," he said impishly, then laughed. "I don't know what else I could have done with the time. And I'm glad I kept playing. The last 20 years have been very rewarding. The career has blossomed, if you will. And this has been when I've truly come to find out that I need to be myself when I am performing. I may not play as well as I used to, but I'm a better performer."

Coleman said Watson has endured for a couple of reasons. "First, he's taken care of his health -- he's a pretty sturdy guy, living the rural life, where everybody works hard. But a lot of it is the love and spirit he has with and for music. It just flows out of him. It's so natural. It keeps him young. And he loves to play."

Holt said: "How long? I wonder. We're booked two years ahead. We've talked about, you know, really quitting. But he's fully aware that when people retire and sit around, it just kills them. He doesn't want that to happen -- and it doesn't hurt to have a thousand people pat you on the back and say, 'That's great.' "

Reached at home a few days after the show, Watson sounded much more at ease than he was in Greensboro. He was back with his "darlin' " -- and besides, "I'm always happier when I sleep in my own bed."

He talked more about his newfound faith, noting that the impetus came while he was listening to Randy Travis's "Doctor Jesus" ( Doctor Jesus, will you help me?/Make me better, make me whole). Although Watson had been baptized at age 14, he said, "the young preacher wasn't experienced in the pulpit. He couldn't explain the Gospel to me. Now I have a whole different feeling about the Gospel."

And he has a whole different feeling about singing his beloved church songs. Asked about his rendition of "Stand by Me" in Greensboro, Watson said, "Those songs have a new meaning to me. With 'Stand by Me,' I'm not just singing the song -- I'm living it. I feel the Almighty right there with me. He becomes real when you fully understand His passion when He went to the cross.

"There used to be a fear in me, but I'm not afraid to die now."

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