Doc Watson Interview 1997

Doc Watson, Telephone Interview with Art Menius, 6/9/97

In the dues paying days, if I hadn’t persuaded Merle to stay on by offering him half the profit out of the music business, he wouldn’t have stayed, and there’s no way I could have done the hard part of the dues paying days without Merle’s driving and help on the road and taking care of the business. Most people don’t realize what it comes to.

In 1967 Merle and I had just done the Hugh Downs “Today Show.” We went to New York and done it real early in the morning. And Merle said, ‘Dad.’ He said, ‘you know, I think I’ll quit the music for a while and do something else.’ He said, ‘I believe I can get a job paying more money.’ I said, ‘I’m sure you could, son, but I don’t see how I can make it without you. I’ll tell you what. If you want to stay on, I’ll give you half of the profit.’ And he thought about it a few minutes, and he said, ‘I don’t believe I can beat that. I believe I’ll stay with you.’

[Before that Doc just “paid him a pretty good little salary.”]

And it wasn’t fair, because he was doing the hard driving and things I could not do as far as the business.

AM: What did you have to do in those four years before Merle went on the road with you?

I traveled a lot on the bus by myself. And Ralph Rinzler traveled some with me, but he got into work where he couldn’t do it anymore. And a man with a handicap, and some people say, ‘Doc, you’re not handicapped.’ Well, there are a lot of things I can do and an awful lot of things I can’t do. Ralph had people meeting me. See, I was just working coffeehouses. I wasn’t making hardly enough money to be in the business. I was just trying to make a start of it. During those four years, I wasn’t on the road very much. Before Merle started with me, I was on the road a little bit, but not much. The coffeehouse circuit was what I did. I went to New York a whole lot and played a place called Gerde’s Folk City and another called the Gaslight. I worked a few coffeehouses at different universities. Did a trip or two with Clint Howard, and Fred Price, and Tom Ashley. We did an occasional little concert for the Friends of Old-Time Music in New York City. But I was home eighty percent of the time during those four years.

I wasn’t out there much. That was sort of a kick off thing. When Merle started, I started booking jobs because I had someone to help me. Dues paying – sleeping on couches part of the time and eating hamburgers. The hard part, the dues paying.

AM: Was Manny [Greenhill] booking you at this time.

Yes he was. If a fellow’s not really that well known, you take what you can get. The kind of thing I did took a long time of me and Merle paying the dues until we could make a decent living at it. It picked up pretty good along in the late 60’s, and then there was a slump, and it was almost like going back to the dues paying days. And then this guy comes along and wants me to work on volume one of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. He didn’t invite Merle to do it, and I wasn’t about to do it. Merle got me off in the corner and said, ‘Dad, it did hurt my feelings, but do it. It will get us in audiences that have never heard us before.’ He had a head on his shoulders, buddy. Let me tell you that. He said, ‘Do it.’ He said, ‘I believe you ought to. It will help us out in the long run even if they didn’t invite me.’ Now that was being a man.

Well, I went ahead and did it, and it did exactly that. And it got the Nitty Gritty heard in audiences that we had. It really did pay off, and it began to build some. Then we put together the Frosty Morn group, and they were there for a year or two with us. That was Bob Hill and Joe Smothers. And then it went back to me and Merle and T. Michael [Coleman]. It rolled along then. We did an awful lot of traveling overseas after that. And then in ’85 the awful tragedy came, and we lost Merle. T. Michael stayed on for a while, and then he went with Seldom Scene.

I persuaded Jack Lawrence to stay on with me because I needed someone to travel with me, and Jack’s a good man on the road. He stayed with until the end of ’90, and I told him I at least was going to semi-retire and get back a little of that money I paid into Social Security. I said, ‘Jack, if you can manage it and want to stay on with me, I’ll split the profit with you.’ He’s an excellent man on the road. He knows how to handle that, and he’ll back me up when people want to draw back on paying us when the pickings are slim on a job and they ain’t done their promotion right. He might hit somebody if he had to. You can’t lose him in the big cities. In other words, he’s made it possible and profitable for me to go on. I don’t have somebody waiting for me at the end of the line, like I did in the Folk Revival. There was a lot of kids then who were glad to do it.

Merle added a full dimension to our music. There are a lot of things I might never have done if it hadn’t been for Merle’s input in the blues and blues-related material. And happy songs. He could take a low down blues, for instance, there was a thing we did called ‘Manglewood.’ In its original form, it was a bluesy as you can get. Merle played it on the slide, and it had kind of a happy sound to it. Musically, Merle was one of the finest slide players that I have ever heard, maybe the best in the land. After his death – and I wish he had gotten it before – an award for being the best slide player of the decade that was presented by SPBGMA.

Merle not only played good slide, but he was an excellent flat picker. He was a good finger-style guitar player, and he was one of the finest old-time frailling banjo players. Most people thought I did all that, but on the last few records we did Merle did all of it. Merle could play bluegrass banjo, and there will be a thing coming out, hopefully in the near future, where Merle and I sat down after he had been playing five months, and we do a whole spiel of things where he plays bluegrass banjo.

Merle was a fine musician. Most people don’t even realize the potential he put into the music that I played. I have a larger repertoire, but having an able musician like Merle behind me really added an awful lot to it. There would be a lot missing if he hadn’t been there.

The reason he got away from [Scruggs style banjo] in the last years that he was here, he said that there was too many bluegrass banjo players out there. He said, ‘Dad, I’ve heard so much of it that I’m not that interested in that kind of banjo playing.’ Let me give you an example, there’s an album that Barry Poss has reissued on Sugar Hill. There was three Poppy albums. There was Elementary Doctor Watson, Then and Now, and Two Days in November. Barry combined those into two CD’s, and there’s three cuts there that I want you to listen to and then you can get an idea of Merle’s bluegrass style banjo playing – there’s ‘Worried Blues,’ and there’s one called ‘Interstate Rag,’ that Merle wrote, and there’s another one called ‘Train That Carried My Girl From Town.’ Be sure to listen to those before you do your article. Then you’ll know how to describe his bluegrass style of banjo playing. I wish gotten tired of it and wanted to go on with the banjo on the old frailling style. I wish he had did a little of both on down the line.

A fellow does what he wants to, and I never bossed Merle. We worked in the music business as partners and friends. I never tried to overlord in the music. He did what he wanted to. And I’m glad of that. I feel so good about that when I think about it.

In recent years it took a little different turn – the music did – after Merle left for me. I did the Portrait album. Oh, his input on those albums would have been something wonderful on the slide and finger-style guitar. You do what you have to. If there’s a missing element, you try to shore up the hole and do the best you can with it.

AM: Has your music changed since Merle died.

I don’t think my playing’s changed too much. I know one thing. I’ve slowed down as far as speed in flat picking. That comes with the fact that I’m seventy-four years old. We would have more than likely done the Portrait album and the Docabilly thing., which were different albums that what I had been doing. Dear Ole Southern Home, that got back to the roots. The Good Ole Gospel album, Merle would have done some marvelous playing on those records had he been here. It would have been another dimension on there, something added to it. Rather than taking anything away from them, it would been something good added to them.

Well, I’ve had some influence on flatpicking guitar, and it has been applied to bluegrass by some of the musicians that play fine flat picked guitar. It’s a gratifying thing. Whatever route your style takes with other people out there, whatever influence it takes, it is a gratifying thing. It’s kind of like doing good deeds for people if they profit from what you try to do in music when somebody takes a hold of your style and applies it to their own style. It’s a compliment, a big one.

AM: When did you first become aware of what came to be called bluegrass music?

The thing is, it got born in Nashville when Bill Monroe started it in sort of an undeveloped form when he went to the Grand Ole Opry. It really developed and became full grown when Flatt & Scruggs joined him. Oh, I loved that sound. Boy, that was true bluegrass in its original developed form when those boys joined Bill. I’ve loved good bluegrass ever since. There’s a lot of modern bluegrass I can’t relate to because it’s too involved. A lot of it involves too many notes. There’s a few good bluegrass groups out there and not just NBB, and you know they’re my favorites. There’s some other people out there that plays fine bluegrass yet.

AM: Who are the younger pickers you like today?

Steve Lewis, Randy Grier, must be about a dozen others….I’m getting like the absent minded professor when I want to remember all these guys’ names. There’s an awful lot of good flatpicking musicians out there who know what they’re doing with a guitar. And banjo players! Once in a while you’ll run into somebody who can do both banjo and guitar. Steve Lewis, with Ric-O-Chet, is one of those. You give him a mandolin, give him a guitar, give him a banjo, and he can play. That boy is a fine musician. That’s just one example of maybe a dozen young musicians out there.

Some of these boys and girls today that I’ve listened to play a lot of stuff that I can barely think or that I can’t play because I’ve barely tried to learn it. A fellow would learn slower now at 74 than he would at 24! I don’t know what causes you to slow down as you age. I guess it’s a natural process. I don’t have Alzheimer’s disease, but I think I have old-timers.

AM: What do you remember about playing that first bluegrass festival in 1965?

There are two things I remember about that. Merle, without getting in trouble with the park rangers, went up the [Blue Ridge] Parkway to get us there. We almost didn’t get the message that we were wanted in it in time. Just before we got up on stage, Merle said, ‘Whew. We did get here on time.” Merle was driving then, and Merle played on that with me. I remember how well he did on backup and lead stuff on that show, and how well received we were as newcomers. Very few people knew about us at that time. Ole Carlton cordial. He was friendly enough. And we did get paid, although it was little. The main thing was how the people up there received us, how they enjoyed what Merle and I did.

AM: What did the honorary doctorate from UNC mean to you?

It was scary, Art. I went up on the stage and sat down with the rest of the people up there. Dan Patterson was my guide during the main part. They saved me until the end. I don’t know why they did that. That wanted to give me the honorary degree, the Doctor of Letters, and I was very grateful for that and humbly proud. The scary part was when Dan guided me up to stand with the man who was going to read the introduction. When I walked up there and he introduced me, it was like somebody got a touchdown on the football field. It was that big an ovation. It was scary. I thought, people from Reagan’s cabinet and the like didn’t get much of a hand, but here these people almost give me a standing ovation. I thought, ‘where did you deserve this from? All you did was go out there and try to earn a living and give people something to enjoy at the same time. I guess maybe that’s why they did it.’ When I got to thinking about it, it was such a wonderful feeling that you almost get such a belly full of butterflies that you almost get nauseated. I’m still not to old to feel that, hah-ha! There’s one thing that I wish could have been, and that is that Merle could have been there with me. Sometimes I think they [the dead] know the good even after they leave here. I’m sure the good Lord doesn’t let them know the bad.

One of the most gratifying things that happened to me after Merle left is the fact that Merle’s son Richard started playing the guitar. I don’t know if he’ll ever go out on the road. He has a job he has to hold down and a family to look after. As a boy he said in a documentary that he’d rather stay home and be happy, and I think Richard still feels that way, but he loves the music with a passion. He’s a good musician in his own right. It’s a pity he can’t spend more time with the guitar than he does because he has the potential to be one of the finer blues guitar players in the country if he could get time to work at it.

I’m proud of him for two reasons. He’s got a wonderful personality, just like his dad had. He loves his family, and he loves me and his mam’ma [Rosa Lee] awful good. The other reason is that he’s a fine musician, and he’s finally getting over stage fright. He went with us to the Gallagher thing, and got up there and was patting that foot and pickin’ good. He wasn’t even nervous. I couldn’t believe that. There was a gang of guitar pickers around me, and he had them all in awe.

He has a lot of Merle’s attributes – that shyness. Maybe he’s a little more talkative than Merle was, but if Merle got to know you he could talk. Somebody asked him one time why he didn’t talk more on stage, and he said, ‘Dad talks enough for both of us.’

Merle taught Richard his first blues runs. Richard started picking some with me in ’90. ’91 at the festival [MerleFest] was the first time he’d played on stage with me, but we’d picked some together before that, and he’d been learning stuff. Merle taught him the blues style runs that he knows, and I taught him some melodies, but he plays his own style. He don’t copy me or anybody else except he gets awful close to Merle on some of the good things that Merle and I played – ‘Southcoast,’ ‘Summertime,’ ‘Gypsy Davey,’ and a lot of that stuff is almost a copy of what Merle did, and I’m proud of that because it shows the boy appreciated what his dad did.

AM: What do you make of MerleFest?

There are two reasons for that [the growth of MerleFest]: the music selectively that comes there and the other main ingredient in the fact that it’s grown is that it’s family oriented, and people don’t come there to party, they go there to fellowship and listen to the music. It is a little scary how fast it’s grown and what it’s come to in bringing in as many people as it has. It’s becoming the biggest one in the country if it isn’t there already.

That it can be that big without a big orgy of some kind going on is what amazes me. Over 45,000 people this time [1997], and if it hadn’t rained Sunday it may have been 50,000.

AM: Does MerleFest do enough to remember Merle?

I don’t know if there’s enough done or not, but I know people have done an awful lot to keep his memory alive. And I know it was started by actual friends of Merle who came there and donated their time and effort – their own expenses and everything. At the first one everybody donated their time. That was one of the main ingredients that helped get it off the ground. I think that element is pretty strong there still.

I’ve heard people who were there for the first time mention to me that it was like a homecoming. Merle would have loved that, Art. He would have really appreciated that. He wouldn’t have boasted or bragged about it, but that warm smile he had and that little chuckle. I can just imagine him saying, ‘Well, Dad, I couldn’t imagine that I would ever deserve a thing like this.’ It would have been wonderful for the boy.

And I’ll tell you another thing. Richard really appreciates that. I’ve heard him talk about it some. How wonderful it made him feel that people thought of his dad that way. That boy loved his dad, and the girl, Karen, does, too…. For children to think that way about their dad, even though he’s gone, is really a wonderful thing and for me and Rosa Lee to know that they feel that way about him.

[When Merle died] Richard was nineteen, and Karen was seventeen.

AM: Why do you reckon the music you make appeals to so many generations?

I’ve been told, Art, that it’s the wide variety of music I play and the way that it’s presented. I’ve finally learned that to be yourself is one of the best God-given attributes that anybody has. Stage presence is not something you manufacture; it’s a God-given talent like the music or computer expertise. I have found that to be yourself on stage is what gets what you do across to the people. They feel like you’re one of them. That’s the key to the whole thing, and it’s not something I decided to do. It just happened.

AM: How much did Merle contribute to the wide variety of music you play?

An awful lot. We’d sit down and talk about things. If I wanted to do something he thought wouldn’t fit a particular show [laughs], he would certainly tell me about it. There was a song called ‘Hula Lou,’ and I was fooling around with it backstage. I wanted to do it, and this is an example of how he felt about some things. He said, ‘Where in the world did you get that thing?’ I said, ‘Off of an old record.’ He told his mother, ‘I hope he don’t go out there and do that. I’d rather do what we already did in the first set.’ He would tell me if he disagreed with a thing, but not in a mean way: ‘That just won’t work. Let’s don’t do that.’ He contributed an awful lot, at least half the input on ideas of what we should do. For instance, it took Merle and I over a year to completely put together the material and thought that went into the album Memories, a two-record set that was on UA [United Artists]. I thought that turned out to be a pretty dog gone good album.

It touches on bluegrass, too, as well as the old-time music and some of the later things. We’ve even got a Bob Wills song, “Hang Your Head in Shame.”

AM: What are your favorites among the records you and Merle made together?

I’m going to give you two of them. There are more than that. I’m going to give you three. The first was Southbound, and Merle hadn’t been playing but a little over a year when we did that, and he did over half the lead guitar work on it. To me that was a milestone, a big one. Boy, I was proud of that young’un when we came out and listened to the whole thing in the control room after we’d done it. We done that album back in two sessions, and that shows that we had practiced.

And the next favorite was one called On Stage With Doc & Merle Watson. It was a double album. I was very proud of his work on that. Then we did an album Down South, the last one that he played on. He produced it for Sugar Hill, and he plays a little frailling banjo on the Riding the Midnight Train bluegrass album. That was the last tunes he recorded. But those three – Southbound, On Stage, and Down South – might be favorites that Merle played on with me, and I love all the albums we played on together.

I’ve never done a record, I don’t think, an album that I didn’t really enjoy listening to back and was kind of proud of most of it. I hear things that I could have done better. Everybody’s like that.

AM: What about GrooveGrass?

Well, I didn’t do much on that. I just sang some… You mean the ‘Macerana’ song. I didn’t actually play on that thing. All I did was sing some harmony notes in those little ‘Macerana’ parts. I don’t know. That was a strange experience. It wasn’t very exciting. I sang a verse on ‘Salty Dog.’ They did a groovegrass version of that. He [Scott Rouse] had Mac Wiseman and other people on that, and I jumped in sang the verses I got from [Mississippi] John Hurt.

AM: Who really influenced you as a singer?

Anybody who could sing a song, whether it was just a straight old-time song or whether it was bluegrass or whether it was a contemporary song, if you could sing, I enjoyed it. I think I just developed my own style.

[Caughs] I think I’m going to have to stop talking to you for a while.

AM: Did you enjoy meeting people like John Hurt during the Folk Revival?

I enjoyed meeting the old-timers as much or more than the newcomers and modern folk that were happening like Peter, Paul, & Mary. Tom Paxton was one of my favorite people that I met in the new folk singers. Those old-timers I really enjoyed – Hobart Smith, and I’d known Tom Ashley. He was practically a neighbor. The black blues singers. I really enjoyed meeting Mance Lipscomb, Son House, and Lightning Hopkins, all those guys. Once they got to know you and realized you weren’t a racist or something, they were really nice folks. They were great fellows, good people to meet.

AM: Are you comfortable with the amount of dates you’re doing now?

We’re working almost too many. I don’t think I’ll book any more [this year] unless something comes up worthwhile that’s local. I’m not going to travel far and wide no more than I am. I have a tour coming up this Thursday morning. I’m going to Oregon, and I dread it. I’ll get out there and get it done. It’s going to be a tough one, but with Jack’s help I’ll get it done. He always managers. He’s awake on time and gets me out to the airport, and we get there. So far we haven’t missed a show. That’s one of the reasons I appreciate Jack. He doesn’t get drunk and that kind of crap on the road. He behaves himself, and that’s a help.

AM: Do like the road any better than Merle did?

Me or Merle neither one liked the road. We both hated it, but it was the thing we did because we needed to. There are two reasons for it: love for the music and trying to earn a living for the family. One thing it did for Merle; it made him a lot of friends. He got to meet a lot of people and go to a lot of places that he never would have gotten to go. For instance, one example is tour we did in Africa for the State Department. I was going to turn that down. I dreaded that. I knew it would be tough physically. I found out. He didn’t tell it to me. He told his mother. He said, ‘I do hope dad’ll go because I’ll never get another chance to go and see it.’ So when I found that out, I called Manny, and I said, ‘Yeah, Manny, I’ll take that tour for the State Department in Africa because Merle wants to do it awful bad.’ Merle was a champ on that trip. He was just a kid in his late teens. He had a birthday when we were over there, in fact. I’ll tell you one thing, that was an adventure. It was like boot camp in the Army. We lost fifteen pounds. Each one of us did. It was so hot over there, and the food you got to eat, half of it you couldn’t eat, and you had to survive on the parts of it you could stand. You were a vegetarian with some cheese thrown in. The meat you couldn’t take. You’d either drink a pint of orange that was imported over there, Pepsi’s, or an occasional beer. You couldn’t drink the water. It was absolutely undrinkable. It was hot – 120 degrees in Botswana in the shade. The drinks were hot. You couldn’t drink the drinks unless you happened to get one where they had an old-fashioned ice box at the little place where you were staying. That was the only place you could find a cold drink. I’ll tell you, that was some adventure. I’m so glad I went because that boy wanted to go so bad. We got back to Johannesburg, South Africa, and this joker that was sent to us as a guide, you know, by the State Department, Bill Kearney, he just came into the hotel room and sat down and said, ‘Merle, son, do you think you can get you and your dad back home from here?’ And Merle said, ‘Sure can. All I have to do is look at the ticket.’ And he did, buddy. We flew one of those little commuter flights from Johannesburg to Pretoria, the capital down there, and the flight was direct from there to Rome, Rome to London, and from London to Washington Dulles, the big one. That’s where we came back in. Merle didn’t have a bit of problem with it. That’s just an example of how good he was out there on the road.

AM: You got an current recording plans?

There’s one that’s vague in the noggin. I may – this is a possibility, not a probability – do an album that touches on the music from the late twenties all the way up to, say, early sixties. A tune or two from each period, not from each year – you couldn’t do that, and it would have to be a double CD, if I can talk Barry into doing that. I’d like to do that. There’s an awful lot of good music that you can glean things out of. It would take a whole summer or whole fall of putting time in on it. I mean, just about every day to do it. I don’t know whether I’ll do it or not. You can leave that as a maybe.

AM: That would be like all the music from when you grew up until you went out on the road.

One of the things I will definitely try to do is Dave Macon’s version of ‘John Henry.’ That was a great one. One of the finest versions of that I’ve ever heard done. I won’t play his style of banjo; I’ll frail it. And there’s a song that Posey Rorrer did with Kelly Harrell called ‘In the Shadow of the Pines.’ It’s a waltz and a two-step combined. It’s a beautiful thing, a love song. That’s just two little examples that you can pick out of this stuff. Dave’s version of ‘John Henry’ was done in the late twenties.

AM: Do you get any peace to do what you want to do.

If it’s somebody I like to talk to Art, I’ll accept the interview. Lots of them I turn down. I enjoyed it. I sort of got to know Art Menius.


AM: How did you first come to meet Doc?

BT: When we were talking about the development of the WCC Gardens here at the college, the idea of a garden for the blind was discussed with Bill Young, who was a retired banker here in Wilkesboro and coincidentally a close friend of Doc. So we talked about the idea of having a concert with Doc here in the Walker Center for one night. Bill arranged for me to meet with Doc. Bill got Doc and brought him down here, and we went to lunch and got to know each other. At that time I was naïve enough to ask Doc what kind of music he played. Of course, he said, ‘traditional plus,’ and tried to explain that to me. I had very little knowledge about any music and perhaps didn’t really understand what he was talking about. Over the years I’ve come to appreciate what he meant, and, in fact, MerleFest exemplifies traditional plus, sometimes called now Americana.

AM: What has been the key role of Doc in the success of MerleFest?

Doc, in his own way, has been able to show me – and in some ways I have been his eyes and ears – a much broader array of music because so much comes in to us. In the beginning days, I’d give Bill Young every tape that came in and when he and Doc were going somewhere they’d listen, and Bill would bring notes back to me. Doc showed me in the first festival what a broad array of instruments and music was all about. He opened my eyes and ears to those opportunities.

His influence and background and perspective opened doors to invite people of various musical genre to the event, and, of course, the networking effect caused it to branch out even further. Somebody who was a friend of Doc or Merle, they’d know somebody else, and that caused that web to be created.

AM: Doc has gone above and beyond most people in his position as far as doing outreach for the festival.

Doc has been the heart and soul of the festival. While it is a tribute to Merle, the festival is in many ways representative of Doc’s music and the large repertoire of music that the Watson clan encompasses. Yes, he has been very generous with his time, but he truly loves the festival and seeing it grow and seeing that it is representative of what his life with Merle was in terms of the music they were a part of.

AM: Why has Doc been so successful relative to most people who play traditionally based music?

First and foremost, Doc is a gentleman. Doc truly believes in putting out 101% when he performs or when he is simply talking to someone. He is obviously a good listener, and he is obviously a deep thinker. He is obviously a genius in terms of his abilities to not only maintain and apply, but to recall information. His repertoire has to be far greater than anyone living today, not having read a note. As much as I’ve traveled with him, every time he performs he typically performs something I’ve never heard him perform.

I think he senses the audience. He told me that he would ask Merle to interpret the audience for him. When I’m with him now, out of curiosity more than anything else, I’ll share with him that it’s an older group or a younger group or kids there or whatever. He remembers those little tidbits, and when he gets up there he’ll do a song for the kids, if there are kids there. If its a college group here or board members, he’ll pitch something that shows that he has the ability to shift his paradigm and put himself in the audience members’ seats, and he plays to them. I think that’s perhaps something he does from the heart and from his love for the music, and it’s really not for the money. He has the innate ability to put himself and the audience and play what that audience wants to hear.


I would say that playing with Doc has affected me in many ways. Some of those things may have been subconscious changes in the way I approach my solos that I can’t explain. The greatest thing that I can think of is Doc’s sense of melody and phrasing. I’m sure that has rubbed off. When I started with him I probably played more hot licks for the sake of them. Now I try to use them for effect instead of stringing them together for a solo. On my CD I tried to use restraint in my selection of songs as well as my playing. I think that mindset could have been influenced by the way Doc chooses his material. I think I really learned to listen more closely in an ensemble situation. Doc and I rarely rehearse so I’ve been forced to learn new material while on stage. When we are at sound check for a gig I always keep one ear cocked toward the dressing room while I take care of business. If Doc plays something more than once through there is a good chance it will be on the show.

Working with Doc has been a gas. When Merle hired me, Doc and I didn’t know each other well. We must have hit it off because Ive been with him for almost 14 years. In all those years Doc has never really told me what to play or what not to. He always let me decide what approach I wanted to take. Our arrangements happen organically. Sometimes even arrangements “While you wait.” He is very generous when it comes to letting me take the lead with my own mini-set within his.

When Doc cut back on his schedule in ’90 we didn’t do much for about 10 months just a few things. Then Doc called and said he wanted to play a little more often. He offered me half of the take to play when he goes out. Art, I’m not sure I want this stated so blatantly in the text. But it is one reason I can afford to play such a limited schedule. Another reason I’ve never told Doc about is that I promised Merle about a month before he died that I would be there for his Dad. I don’t know if this would embarrass Doc or not. He is one of my closest friends and I wouldn’t want to offend him. I respect him like a father.


>>1. When did your dad start representing Doc? Do you know how this came about?<<

1964 or 1965. Ralph Rinzler had been representing Doc — including the first New York concert that Ralph helped present — but his interests lay elsewhere. It is my understanding that Ralph recommended Manny and Doc to each other.

>>2. Other than 1990 itself, how much has Doc actually cut back his touring schedule relative to before his “retirement?”<<

Doc and Merle were playing more than 100 dates per year up until Merle’s death. I think the mixed signals that Doc sent out about retirement were based on his own internal confusion as to whether he wanted to continue without Merle. These days he normally goes out for one weekend per month, although he can sometimes be persuaded to add a Carolina date or two. He is quite serious about keeping a limited (or “semi-retired”) schedule, and has turned down quite a few big concert dates.

>>3. When did you take over primary responsibility for booking Doc?<<

I eased into it gradually, over a period of about five years, starting in the late 70’s. A major step was Merle’s bringing me to Nashville to co-produce LOOK AWAY! Merle and I had always gotten along quite well, going back to our early twenties. I think we kept each other company in that we were the sons (and older children) of prominent people. I know that, when he died, I felt a big hole in my life, not having someone who understood that quirky and delicate role.

>>4. Why do think Doc can appeal so broadly across generations? Why does his name recognition remain so strong for an acoustic musician?<<

I think the main reason is simply that he’s so damn good. That he is a virtuoso on the most popular instrument of our times (like perhaps a sax or trumpet player in the forties), combined with his direct linkage to a long and honorable cultural heritage, in a time when that is endangered, doesn’t hurt.


>1. How much creative control does Doc exert? Are the album concepts entirely his?

Doc knows what he wants to do. I suggest lots of projects, we discuss lots of projects and, from time to time, I delude myself into thinking I’ve planted an idea, but in the end, he is doing exactly what he had in mind.

> >2. Was signing Doc a major step forward for Sugar Hill? Did it help define the label as rather more than a bluegrass boutique?

I can think of no more joyous occasion than the day I received a phone call from Doc saying (and I remember it exactly) “Son, I like the music you’re putting out and I’d like to make some records with you.” This was a great moment for us as a label but also for me personally. Long before Sugar Hill, I had been visiting and playing old time music with Doc’s father-in-law, Gaither Carlton, but I really only knew Doc as a fan through his records and concerts. To be actually working with this giant of a man was an incredible thrill for me.

> >3. How’s Doc to work with as a recording artist?

As a recording artist he is all the things he is as a man; articulate, determined, gentle, witty, wise and a joy to be around. And, he is ready when he is ready.

> >4. Within the confines of your circumspect manner using verbiage of your choice, how well does Doc sell? >

Consistently very strong.

>5. Why do you think Doc appeals across generations and outside of tidy genre boxes?

Well, it’s that guitar playing, and that that singing, and those stories — they all draw you into Doc’s world. Regardless of background, you just know this man conveys authenticity, the music and culture of perhaps another time and place, and yet you can relate to him and his music in a rather direct way. He is a consummate artist and he is accessible.

The reason he got away from [Scruggs style banjo] in the last years that he was here, he said that there was too many bluegrass banjo players out there. He said, ‘Dad, I’ve heard so much of it that I’m not that interested in that kind of banjo playing.’ Let me give you an example, there’s an album that Barry Poss has reissued on Sugar Hill. There was three Poppy albums. There was Elementary Doctor Watson, Then and Now, and Two Days in November. Barry combined those into two CD’s, and there’s three cuts there that I want you to listen to and then you can get an idea of Merle’s bluegrass style banjo playing – there’s ‘Worried Blues,’ and there’s one called ‘Interstate Rag,’ that Merle wrote, and there’s another one called ‘Train That Carried My Girl From Town.’ Be sure to listen to those before you do your article. Then you’ll know how to describe his bluegrass style of banjo playing. I wish gotten tired of it and wanted to go on with the banjo on the old frailling style. I wish he had did a little of both on down the line.



1 thought on “Doc Watson Interview 1997

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.