Rejected Doc & David Liner Notes 2001
By Art Menius
Doc Watson and David Holt come from different places and backgrounds, yet each has spent their adult years spreading Appalachian culture to the world. Neither planned a career in music. Each ended up living most of their lives in the mountains of western North Carolina, but only one grew up there.
“[E]ver since I can remember,” wrote Arthel Lane ”Doc” Watson for the January 2000 issue of Our State: North Carolina magazine, “the Blue Ridge Mountains of northwestern North Carolina have been my home. I was born March3, 1923, son of General D. and Annie Greene Watson, in a township called Stoney Fork, and I grew up on a little Osborne Mountain ridgetop farm.” This would be in Watauga County, some seventy miles west of Winston-Salem via US Highway 421. During October 2000 the state dedicated a portion of it near his Deep Gap home as the Doc & Merle Watson Highway, the day before Doc was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Honor.
“If I had been a sighted person,” Doc continued, “I would have chosen a career in which I could have been home more ‑ a carpenter, a mechanic, or maybe an electrician. But having been blind since infancy, I began to fool around with my other love, which was, music.
“How I enjoyed getting out into the woods, sometimes accompanied by our young son Merle, and cutting our own fuel for the wood cookstove. Life was peaceful and quiet. I remember so well how, later in the dues‑paying days ‑ as they say in the music business ‑ homesick I would get. My son Merle, my musical partner, and I would do opening acts in some big city like Philadelphia or New York. And when that last concert was over, we would be so happy and excited to catch that Trailways Express bus back to good ol’ North Carolina.”
David Holt spent his formative years a bit west of Doc in Texas and California, and a few years later. Born in Garland, just northeast of Dallas, David grew up in a family of avid, although certainly not professional, storytellers. During junior high the Holts relocated to Pacific Palisades, on the coast just north of Santa Monica. Despite the family yarns that David absorbed and the family’s heirloom bones passed down through five generations, little of his west coast youth in the 1960s indicated he would become a purveyor of traditional mountain stories and music.
Then a serendipitous 1968 discovery of a 78-rpm record by cowboy music recording pioneer Carl T. Sprague changed everything. Learning that Sprague still lived not far from Garland, Holt was soon there. The old-timer taught him to play the harmonica and related a hundred stories. More importantly, Sprague gave David a purpose for life after he was graduated from the University of California – Santa Barbara. “The excitement of learning from the source, the old timers themselves” filled David the way the culture enraptures certain souls.
It only took one more California earthquake to convince Holt and Ginny Callaway to move east to the mountains near Asheville, North Carolina. Soon David was meeting master musicians and storytellers and becoming part of the vital stream that keeps folk culture alive. As he absorbed Appalachia, he began taking his music and stories to schools. In 1975 he became the Director of the Appalachian Music Program at Warren Wilson College, where he would train such able students as Laura Boosinger and Jeff Robbins. Since 1981 David has performed full-time.
Watson started performing on radio at 19. From 1953 through 1960 he played electric guitar for the rockabilly and western swing dance band lead by Jack Williams. Inspired by Hank Garland and Grady Martin, with Williams Watson learned to pick fiddle tunes for square dances on an electric Gibson Les Paul guitar. When he translated that to an acoustic Martin, Doc moved to the forefront of American acoustic guitarists. He helped write the rules for succeeding generations of acoustic, flat pick guitarists. During the fifties, Watson also played traditional music with relatives and one Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who had made major label records between the World Wars. The late folk culture activist Ralph Rinzler and record collector Eugene Earle came to North Carolina seeking Ashley; they found Doc, also a righteous old-time banjo player, in the bargain. Rinzler considered the pair “on a par with the Carter Family and Uncle Dave Macon.” He devised successfully to market Watson and Ashley through emphasizing the “‘folkness’ of their roots.” He had found in Watson a young man who could both present the traditional material with authority while also tastefully applying revolutionary guitar technique to old tunes.
By the time Doc discovered the folk revival in the 1960s, he had already absorbed blues, gospel, fiddle and banjo music, pop standards, swing and honky-tonk, and ‘50s rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and pop. All those sounds and styles find their way in his playing. Yet Doc found life on the road lonely and demanding, a sightless stranger in a strange land. He traveled by bus, met at each station by yet another young stranger arranged by his agent Manny Greenhill.
Then his son joined the family business. Merle was 14 in 1963 when Doc Watson make a breakthrough performance at the Newport Folk Festival. While his father’s career grew, Merle decided that he wanted to play guitar. Rosa Lee taught Merle his first basic chords. In June of 1964 he accompanied Doc to concerts in Berkeley and San Francisco, California, performing for the first time before an audience of 12,000 people. That November, they recorded their first album together.
“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 [following a 1967 “Today Show” appearance], 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,” Doc told me in 1997. “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. If a fellow’s not really that well known, you take what you can get.
“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. 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.
“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. Merle got me off in the corner and said, ‘Dad, it will get us in audiences that have never heard us before.’ He said, ‘Do it.’ He said, ‘I believe you ought to. It will help us out in the long run….’ Now that was being a man. Well, I went ahead and did it, and it did exactly that. It really did pay off,”
With that Doc moved from folk star to American music icon, winning five Grammys, three with Merle, over the next quarter-century. As much as Doc and especially Merle preferred life at home, the road proved too lucrative for their families to resist, and that road seemed to stretch forward endlessly.
Holt, meanwhile, found a new home on the TV screen, first with the public TV series “Folkways,” which he revisited in the 1990s, and then as host of “Fire on the Mountain,” one of the original series for what was then called The Nashville Network. The program featured bluegrass, folk, and old-time artists, knitted together with David’s engaging, open personality.
When I visited the set in March 1983, Holt enthused about a performance earlier that week. “The other night we had Doc Watson. He did some new stuff, and it was just hot!”
Although “Fire on the Mountain” became TNN’s highest rated show in June 1985, two years later it was cancelled. Holt moved on to “American Music Shop” on TNN, while continuing to perform and record. He soon became host of the long running Public Radio International show, “Riverwalk,” presenting classic jazz. Throughout the 1990s his stature grew as an entertainer, musician, storyteller, and recording artist.
In the very early hours of Wednesday, October 23, 1985, Eddy Merle Watson rolled over his farm tractor on a steep hill side near his home in Caldwell County. Suddenly, Merle was gone. The Watson Family still feels the loss today. “MerleFest is a memorial to Merle, but if he were there it would be absolutely complete,” Doc was quoted in the September 1999 number of Guitar Player. “If you love someone, you never quit missing them… I miss Merle worse than I did when we lost him. I miss playing music with him.”
“In recent years it took a little different turn – the music did for me – after Merle left,” Doc told me. “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. 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 [in 1997].”
The awards kept coming for Doc, but they don’t mean the same without his partner. In 1994 his entire family received the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. Doc has also earned the National Medal of the Arts and the National Heritage Fellowship, America’s foremost recognition of traditional artists. In July 1998 the North Carolina Senate passed a resolution honoring Doc on the occasion of “Doc Watson Day” in Watauga County. On May 11, 1997 Doc traveled to Chapel Hill to become an official doctor, for the second time, through the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters from UNC. In February 2000 the North American Folk Music & Dance Alliance presented Doc their Lifetime Achievement Award.
Doc found a new road partner in the brilliant North Carolina guitarist Jack Lawrence and, despite frequent talk of retirement, continues to log plenty of miles on the road. Beyond the picking, dexterous, yet never using technique for just its own sake, and the resonant, reassuringly wise singing, Doc simply appears assured, commanding but never stern, precise, but seeming to enjoy what he’s doing. It helps create for the audience that perfect blend of having fun while doing something worthwhile.
David remains dedicated to taking traditional story and song to new generations. He possesses that rare personality that makes the old ways seem hip and fresh, timelessly countercultural. No slave to the canon, he has no qualms about singing National Enquirer headlines to the tune of “Camptown Races.” Whenever you see David Holt, you’re impressed with how much fun he has with the ancient tunes and tales.
The pairing of Doc Watson and David Holt proves so natural that I ought to have thought of it myself and a long time ago. A UNC Center for Public TV special portrayed their rare chemistry. They share the love of the mountains and its music and stories. They know the admiration of a thousand strangers, yet they each also know the greatest loss, that of child. On stage, the music, jokes, and stories flow as easily between them as if they had been working together for thirty years.
That’s because more than Appalachian ballads, jack tales, and fiddle tunes, David and Doc are each totally themselves, utterly sincere on stage. “I’ve finally learned that to be yourself is one of the best God-given attributes that anybody has,” Doc explains. “Stage presence is not something you manufacture; it’s a God-given talent. 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.”