Doc Watson, the blind guitarist whose speedy flatpicking made him immeasurably influential, died Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.
In addition to leaving an indelible mark on American folk and country music, Watson was beloved by area bluegrass fans. Over the years, he played countless concerts at Wolf Trap National Park for the Performing Arts; one Post review described Watson’s audience at a 1977 Wolf Trap gig as “a massive crowd — thousands of good country people and one Iranian empress.”
Although Watson spent his career winning fans the world over, he was contemplating retirement nearly 25 years ago. You can read former Post pop music critic Richard Harrington’s 1988 profile of Watson below:
Doc Watson, Strumming Home; After a Quarter-Century on the Road, the Guitar Legend Chooses to Retire
By Richard Harrington,
Washington Post Staff Writer
Jan. 25, 1988
Sometime next year Doc Watson will be going back to Deep Gap, North Carolina. And if things go the way he’s planned, he won’t be leaving home much anymore.
Leaving Deep Gap is something the legendary folk guitarist and singer has done all too often since his “discovery” at age 37 during the ‘60s folk revival — he’s spent up to 300 days a year on the road. Little wonder that Watson has decided to do what few musicians ever have the sense to: Retire at 65 and start collecting the Social Security he’s earned.
“I’ve been in music, it’ll be 26 years next March,” Watson says in that familiar rural voice. “My birthday’s the third of March and I started my first solo concert tour in 1964, March 20. I left home March 17th, and it’s a long time of stress and travel. ... I doubt if I’ll keep recording, and I will not do any more full-time shows on the road.”
Watson, who performs at the Barns at Wolf Trap Saturday night, concedes that “there’s one little place where I might play on a Friday or Saturday, if they want me, a place in southwestern Virginia where A.P. Carter used to have a store. I might go up there and play a set of old-time music for them now and then.” Otherwise, he says, “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 Rosalee.”
But 26 years on the road can take a toll on anyone. And it’s been especially hard on Watson, says bassist T. Michael Coleman, who’s been with him for almost 16 years. “Being blind, he’s got none of his talking books or the work he likes to do around,” Coleman says. “It’s incredibly boring for him, especially on the long rides from one place to another. He just wants to live his life like he wants to live it.”
Two and a half years ago, he lost his son Merle, who had toured with him for two decades, to a tractor accident; many thought he’d find it too painful to go on. But while reluctant to talk about Merle’s death, Watson wasn’t yet ready to quit.
He is now, though. “I think I will enjoy it very much,” he says, “if I’m not the worst fool Doc Watson’s ever been in his life.”
He will miss “the music and the audiences I’ve loved over the years,” he says. And he feels “blessed” that he’s been able “to earn a living for my family without accepting charity from the state of North Carolina. I reckon that kind of welled up a little bit of the pride my daddy instilled in me when he put me to work when I was 14. Instead of sitting me in the corner and saying, ‘Son, you’re blind, you can’t do nothing,’ he put me to work. I think every handicapped person should be made to realize that they’re not worthless.”
In fact, they can be priceless.
From the moment Watson is led onto a stage, a duty fulfilled for so many years by Merle, there is a sense of event, of communion between present and past. Watson tunes one of his custom-made flattop guitars — the best luthiers dream about Doc playing their instruments — and settles himself into his chair. It’s a chance for the audience to calm down; Watson has always preferred that people be quiet and listen to his music as carefully as he plays it. His outfits are as down-home as the music — jeans, flannel shirt, sometimes a down vest.
There’s an internal start-up in process: You sense it when Doc’s broad face seems to relax a tad, the smile of reconnection slowly unfolding. And then there’s a sudden flurry of crystal-clear notes that are never too busy, since Doc’s not particularly tolerant of the school of speed pickers he influenced. The right arm rests on the upper curve of the guitar as the elbow and, of course, the wrists do much of the work. As Doc’s fingers fly across the neck and body of the guitar, the notes emerge clean and strong, telling their own stories or floating, latticelike, under that engaging baritone. When Doc’s pleased, he’ll lean his head back a bit and unfurl a grin that could charm a possum out of a tree. The look on his face when he knows everything is right is ecstatic.
He might start with a favorite like “Ridin’ on That New River Train” or “Tennessee Stud,” but what comes after is anybody’s guess and everybody’s delight: “Deep River Blues” and the spiritual “I Am a Pilgrim,” a jazzy “Summertime” and a medley of old fiddle tunes, a nod to Doc’s rockabilly past, and new songs from Townes Van Zandt and Tom Paxton. Country, blues, gospel, ragtime, bluegrass, old-timey — as someone once said, Doc’s a jack of all genres and a master of each.
Here’s Chet Atkins, another guitar legend, on Watson: “He’s a hell of a singer and guitar player. I told him once, ‘You’re really handsome, Doc, did you know that?’ And he laughed. And I said, ‘It’s not your picking and singing ... you’re so handsome, and that’s why people love you.’
“He got a big laugh out of that.”
“He’s a great man and I hope he won’t completely retire,” Atkins adds. “I hope he’ll still play on the front porch and maybe a lot of people will come and visit and learn some things from him, because Doc’s certainly got a lot of knowledge to give out. ...
“And if he ever makes a comeback tour, I’d like to play rhythm for him.”
To bassist Coleman, who recently joined the Seldom Scene, Watson is “a walking encyclopedia of American folk music, yet he’s so unaffected by any status that he’s achieved. ... No matter who comes around, he’s always been just Doc, and he wouldn’t hesitate to say, ‘Wait a minute, I’m talking to somebody else.’ He wouldn’t put someone aside for anyone who was supposedly a star. He’s always prided himself on being a person first and musician second. It’s just something he does to make a living.”
Of course, Doc Watson didn’t make a good living at music until fairly late in his life, but he says he got an early training in good values in Deep Gap, the Blue Ridge Mountain hamlet named by Daniel Boone. The sixth of nine children born to farmer General Watson and his wife, Watson was born with defects in the vessels that carry blood to the eyes. An infection left him blind at age 2.
“I imagine there are quite a few good old dads around that had blind children, and mothers that realized just because one of the senses wasn’t there they weren’t worthless,” Watson says. “My brothers took me out to play with them. I climbed trees and fell out just like they did, I tumbled down banks and all the rest of it. And I learned the space world that way and learned how to find things by sound echo. As long as you’re young and your hearing’s good, your ears are pretty good eyes.”
Music was a part of Watson’s life early on, in the form of hymns at church and at home, and in the songs his mother sang around the house. “The first music that I can remember hearing was at the little church I went to,” he recalls. “My dad was the singing leader in the little choir and they sang unaccompanied, a lot of it was the old ‘Christian Harmony’ songs. My wife’s grandfather used to teach singing school after the crops were laid by and they’d practice singing the syllables to the shape notes [a system devised for people who didn’t read music]. After they learned the harmonies, each person would sing his part. It was so strange and yet it was so pretty ...
“I loved music. When I was little, before I got the five-string banjo, if it was music, I liked it. Didn’t make any difference what it was. As a child I was attracted to the sound.”
Watson got a harmonica in his Christmas stocking every year, and it wasn’t long before he got his first stringed instrument, a homemade banjo — though it wasn’t given with the idea that he might someday make a living as a musician.
“No, and it was a long time in my life before it became a profession,” Watson says. “I was 11 years old that year and, just before the guitar came into my life, Dad picked that little banjo up and said, ‘Here, son, I want you to learn to play it real well. ... You get where you can play this thing pretty good, it might help you get through the world.’
“One time after that, after I’d got a hold of the guitar and learned a few chords and a few good little tunes on it, he said, ‘Well, you might do pretty good as a musician,’ kind of light. That’s the most he ever said to me about it. He may have had hopes, but he knew how most people in those days felt about blind people and he didn’t want to build up my hopes too much.”
Times were tough enough in Deep Gap, and the Depression only made things worse. Due to the family’s poverty, Watson didn’t enter the Raleigh School for the Blind until he was 10 and stayed only four years. But he was, then as now, inquisitive, and his musical education went on in front of the family’s battery-powered radio and the small wind-up record player his father had picked up from a neighbor. It came with cartons of 78s featuring all kinds of music, the roots of Watson’s expansive repertoire.
“The first thing I learned on the guitar was the thumb/lead finger strum that the Original Carter Family used,” he says. “Then I figured out by listening a little bit that Jimmie Rodgers’ bass runs and the strum behind his blues songs was done with a flatpick, and I had to do something that old Jim done. Then I began to hear Merle Travis play, and the Delmores. Travis [for whom Watson named his son] played finger style, so I went a little further with that, and the Delmores used flatpick and they really inspired me to get into playing some flatpick leads.”
As he absorbed different styles, Watson moved through various guitars — slowly. His first was a $12 Stella at age 12, followed a few years later by a Sears, Roebuck Harmony, and eventually a Martin D-28.
“It’s very important to have a good guitar, but I never could swing it,” Watson recalls. “Even the Martin that I acquired in my late teens was very hard to play — the neck was a second off the line and I got it rather cheap. It did have a real beautiful tone, but there was no craftsman in the area then that could fix the neck, so I had to put up with it the way it was. It was awfully hard to play it. I think that’s one of the reasons I traded it in on the electric guitar.”
Yes, Doc Watson, giant of the acoustic guitar, the man who would inspire and set the standards for a generation of acoustic musicians, first made a living playing a Les Paul Standard. On that “impure,” modern instrument, he developed the highly ornamented style of flatpicking that caught the attention of folk revivalists and archivists alike.
Before he went electric, Watson’s career was in limbo. His skills were known in a rural community where there were no strangers, only neighbors, and he had played on some remote radio broadcasts — in fact, that’s where he’d picked up the “Doc,” after an announcer decided in 1941 that “Arthel” didn’t have enough resonance and someone in the studio offered up the name he’s been known by ever since. But the work was not consistent, and a decade later, with his wife Rosalee, son Merle and daughter Nancy to care for, Watson joined Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a country swing and rockabilly band that played square dances and VFW halls in North Carolina and eastern Tennessee.
Electric guitar, Watson says, “was the rage in the ‘50s when that ‘stuff’ was being born, as my friend Jack Williams called it. Musically it wasn’t that good, but we had a good time and I could make a few shekels on Friday and Saturday nights to supplement the Aid for the Blind I was getting. I was tuning a few pianos, getting along pretty good, I thought. A dollar was a dollar back then.”
Watson was just a sideman in the Williams band, occasionally featured, and was often asked to transfer fiddle tunes to guitar for the dancers. He’d tried to fiddle once, but “it sounded about like a hundred pigs, so I decided I’d try and see if I couldn’t play some of them fiddle tunes on guitar. In the ‘50s I developed the technique to some extent, but in the folk revival of the ‘60s, I really went after it seriously.”
Had Watson insisted on sticking to electric, the man who discovered him in 1960 might have simply passed him by.
“Ralph Rinzler was the key to my success in the folk revival and as a concert performer,” Watson says. “He encouraged me and helped me when I’d begun to think a career wasn’t possible except playing electric guitar with a local rockabilly group for a few dances. I figured that was about as far as I’d go when Ralph came along.”
Rinzler is now an assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, but 27 years ago he was a young musician and folklorist heading into the Blue Ridge Mountains looking for a legendary old-timey banjo player named Clarence Ashley. When he found Ashley, he was picking tunes with his neighbor — Doc Watson.
“I heard a wisp of electric guitar, and I didn’t really register it, except to be put off,” Rinzler recalls. “After all, I was going down there to reconnect with a very extraordinary banjo player and singer who represented something absolutely, diametrically opposed to anything that could happen with an electric guitar.”
Before he recorded Ashley, though, Rinzler had a five-hour trip to pick up fiddler Fred Price, and Watson decided to go along for the ride in the back of the pickup truck. “And I got to hear Doc play banjo,” Rinzler says. “I was dazzled that the same person who played that electric guitar was playing five-string banjo in an archaic style with extraordinary skill. And when he proceeded to talk to me, he was articulate, charming, witty, profound — as much as you could be sitting in the back of a truck bumping along the road. I was completely astonished by him, as an intellect, as a personality and as a musician.”
Rinzler had been listening to Southern rural folk music on Library of Congress field recordings for 20 years, since age 7, and “I knew the styles of the music but had never really connected with the people who played it. I knew it as a sound, not as an expression of a thinking, functioning person sitting in front of me. I had no idea what kind of people played this music. I just had the sound ringing in my ears of this beautiful, pentatonic, archaic-sounding music sung in a vocal style that left Frank Sinatra far behind.
“Doc was the first traditional musician I ever became a close friend of. And what astonished me was that the people who are great musicians in traditional music are as profound as great artists in any kind of art. He is an extraordinarily warm, compassionate and witty human being with an incredible breadth of knowledge.”
Rinzler had to convince Watson that he should abandon electric guitar. “I had to be persuaded in my own mind,” Watson recalls. “I wanted to play it and turn it real low. We tried that on a couple of tunes and Ralph didn’t have to tell me that it didn’t work.... I borrowed an acoustic guitar to play on the rest of them.”
He’d played mostly pop tunes of the day in Williams’s band, but now he found himself rediscovering his roots. “I didn’t forget the good old songs, they were still there. You could tune your electric guitar to the open tunings and play some of the blues things like ‘Sittin’ on Top of the World’ and ‘The Train That Carried My Girl From Town,’ but when you took them back to the acoustic guitar, then the old spirit was reborn.”
In 1961 Watson made his first trip to New York with Ashley, Price and guitarist Fred Howard — still as a featured sideman who was sometimes patronized by his fellow musicians. “I remember how he was introduced by Ashley at Town Hall,” Rinzler says. “ ‘Now Doc, he’s the workhorse of the crew. He’s blind but he can do anything a 10-year-old boy can do. ...’ He had been a blackface comedian and that was his sense of humor.”
Over the next few years Watson emerged as a solo performer and a charming storyteller. Once again a truck ride — this one carrying Watson, Ashley and the other musicians around the country — was the catalyst. This time, though, Rinzler was at the wheel.
“I’d drive through the night, and while the others slept, Doc had to keep me awake,” Rinzler says. “He’d entertain me with stories, songs, jokes and reminiscences and he was an incredible raconteur. I said, ‘Doc, what you do to keep me awake in the car is an infinitely more interesting and moving experience than any of the stuff Clarence and Clint Howard do on stage. They’re canned performance and you’re human integrity. Talk to those people as if there was one person there driving across the country and you’ll steal everybody’s heart.’
“So he got up there and he was just himself, like he always is, and he’s been doing it ever since.”
“It was a wonderful thing to go out there and play at a big festival like Newport,” Watson says, “to play to audiences of quite a few thousand people and have the whole bunch sit attentively and listen to what you did. It was a little bit scary, too. I wasn’t used to that kind of attention. Dances are a whole other thing, people are having a good time. It’s altogether different.”
So was Doc Watson. For one thing, he was a master of many styles, with what Rinzler once described as “rural roots and urban perspective.” Once his talents became known, Watson redefined the flat-picked acoustic guitar as a lead instrument, giving it validity and wide appeal.
Watson’s been described as an old-timey musician, sometimes as a bluegrass musician, but he didn’t record a purely bluegrass album (”Riding the Midnight Train”) until last year. “People have referred to what we do as traditional plus whatever we decide to add to the show, and that’s exactly what it amounted to,” he says. “The style and the flavor we put in, whatever we play is what it is. Merle and I had a certain thing that we stuck to and we added things to the repertoire that weren’t traditional but helped keep us alive through the slump in the folk revival in the late ‘60s.”
The money he’d started making as a star of that revival lifted one great burden. Rinzler remembers “the day he got word to Rosalee that he was off state aid. All of his life, Doc, with that incredible penetrating mind and sensitivity, had to feel enormously defeated having a social worker come and tell him how to spend that minuscule check.”
With one burden lifted, others arrived.
“If I had to travel by myself again like I did in the early ‘60s before Merle started, I would have quit a long time ago,” Watson says convincingly. “Son, that’s hard. For a green country man not really used to the city, it was a scary thing to come to New York and wonder, ‘Will that guy meet me there at the bus station, and will the bus driver help me change buses?’ and all that stuff, people not knowing you’re blind and stepping on your feet. It’s just scary, the road is.”
“It took a terrible toll on him,” Rinzler agrees. “The stomach ulcers for the first few years just ground him up. [In 1982] we were at the White House walking down a path and Doc held my elbow as I walked a little ahead. And he said, ‘Son, I love you about as much as any friend I have except Merle, but I’ll tell you, if I’d known what life on the road was going to be like when you first came down there, I would have told you I’ll play music around here and you can record me but I’m not going out on that road.”
Several times Watson considered retiring, but Merle helped him go on. “His mother started him on the guitar,” Watson recalls. “I didn’t even know he was interested until I came home off the road on that first concert tour. He started at the Berkeley Folk Fest the year he was 15 and played backup guitar. He’d been playing three months at that time.
“I would have quit in ‘67 if Merle had quit. We had done ‘The Today Show’ and were fixing to drive home from New York City and he said, ‘Dad, I’m of a good mind to get out of music and do something else for a while.’ So I said if he’d take care of the business end, we’d take expenses off the top and split the rest. We weren’t making all that much at the time, but he said, ‘I don’t believe I can get a job and make that much money. I believe I won’t quit.’
“And I’ve wondered several times, did I do the right thing?”
For 20 years Merle Watson was Doc’s partner, manager and driver, as well as a masterly guitarist — some thought he was even better than his father — who seemed to have no interest in the spotlight. (”Say something, Merle!” a fan once called out during a recorded concert. “Honey,” Doc replied, “I’ve been trying to get him to do that for years, and I ain’t been able yet.”) Most of all he was his father’s friend. In the fall of 1985, he died in a tractor accident on his farm. He was 36.
Watson was devastated.
“It’ll always be difficult,” he says somberly. “That’s one of the reasons I’m going to retire at 65. I almost quit when he got killed. He had hired Jack Lawrence to work part time in his place for about a year and a half before the accident happened, or I would have quit then.”
Even now, Watson is fighting to bring his son the recognition he never got during his life. “Merle’s contribution to music was understated from the time he did his first lead work on a Vanguard album called ‘Southbound,’ right down the line. Hundreds of people have come up to me and said, ‘Boy, you sure played good on “Summertime.” ‘ Sorry, my son did the lead. I didn’t pick a lick of it. I just strummed in the background and sang it. And so on. ...
“It hurts,” Doc Watson says.