Doc Watson: Roots of Mastery
By Art Menius
Thirty-five years ago Doc Watson emerged on the folk scene, appearing seemingly full blown and completely mature as a young bearer of tradition. That he has survived, indeed thrived, both commercially and artistically for so long proves that Doc was and is far more than a simple mountain musician. It bespeaks someone who interacts with the world on a complex variety of levels, an artist comfortable with himself and sagely aware of who his audience is.
We have a performer who continues to work as much as he wants some five years after “retiring” and remains vibrantly creative at an age when many have taken permanent residence on the sofa. He hosts an annual roots music festival that draws nearly 40,000 people to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, just down the verdant slopes of the Blue Ridge from his Deep Gap home. He was perhaps the first master Appalachian musician with his own World Wide Web page (URL: <htttp://sunsite.unc.edu/doug/DocWat/Doc.html>). The release during 1995 of the adventurous Docabilly on Sugar Hill and a four-CD retrospective on Vanguard, as well as the reissue on CD by Rounder of the formerly British-only Watson Family Tradition, demonstrates that the time is now to examine the longevity of an American folk institution who refuses to stand still.
An entertainer who has sustained both career and integrity so long draws upon a wellspring of hard work, risk taking, artistic merit, personal strengths, and good fortune. You can’t ride a one trick pony that far, and you have to earn some breaks and find a few good friends on the side of the road to help you on your pilgrim’s way.
Doc could have ended up merely as the guitarist on some obscure rockabilly 45 available only on a Dutch bootleg. From 1953 through 1960 he played electric guitar for the rockabilly and western swing dance band lead by Jack Williams. Docabilly celebrates his love for 1950s pop music. He also played traditional music with relatives and one Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who had made major label records between the World Wars. The late Ralph Rinzler, who made manifold contributions to the folk music field, and Eugene Earle came to northwestern North Carolina seeking Ashley, whose work had appeared on then recent reissue LP’s. 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” and their links to more recognized artists. Those first field recordings have resurfaced on two CD’s, with 20 previously unavailable cuts, as The Original Folkways Recordings of Doc Watson And Clarence Ashley: 1960 Through 1962 (Smithsonian/Folkways). You can also hear Doc at his most traditional with family members on The Doc Watson Family (Smithsonian/Folkways) and Songs From The Southern Mountains (Sugar Hill).
The timing proved a blessing. Although he struggled for a couple of years and detested being away from home, the conditions couldn’t have been better; witness how many major folk figures emerged contemporaneously – Bob Dylan, Peter, Paul & Mary, Phil Ochs, and Mississippi John Hurt for starters. The folk labels, festivals, and coffeehouses had become well enough established to promise a living, but room still remained for new comers and traditional artists on the main stage. Show biz had not quite yet come to the folk revival, and almost a decade remained until singer-songwriter commonly came to mean James Taylor or Carly Simon.
While with Williams, Watson learned to pick fiddle tunes for square dances on an electric Gibson Les Paul guitar. When he translated that to a Martin, Doc moved to the forefront of American acoustic guitarists. Along with Clarence White of the Kentucky Colonels, and a few years later Dan Crary and Tony Rice, he wrote the rules for succeeding generations of acoustic, flat pick guitarists. He continues to present a simple elegance in his melodically accessible picking.
The key came from the combination of that innovation with Doc’s ability to project enjoyment, sincerity and the authority of tradition. Already in his late thirties when he burst upon the folk boom of the early 1960s, Doc combined being both a genuine Appalachian musician with deep musical roots with the worldliness to understand his audiences and opportunities. His blindness, like so many pioneer professional musicians, forced this man with no desire for the road upon it, but his character maintained the integrity true artistry demands. The notoriety earned on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken (Liberty) placed Doc and Merle on major label and countless college campuses. When that time passed, Doc moved on to Flying Fish, then Sugar Hill, and kept on making his own music.
Watson’s longevity builds on his open ears. He grew up in the first radio and phonograph generation when music from far away could makes its way into the hills of Watauga County. We know that string bands in the North Carolina mountains adapted pop and swing tunes heard through the grooves and over the airwaves to their fiddle, banjo, and guitar ensembles during the time of his youth. Juke boxes arrived with even more musical selections. Doc even married into a family with a musical heritage as strong as his own. So by the time Doc discovered the folk revival, he had already absorbed blues, gospel, fiddle and banjo music, pop standards, swing and honky-tonk, and 1950s rock ‘n’ roll, R&B, and pop.
All those sounds and styles find their way in his playing on stage, back stage, and in the studio. A sustained high level of recordings over an extraordinarily long period has both maintained that integrity and won new generations of listeners. That’s evinced by five Grammies over three decades for Then and Now (Poppy, reissued on Sugar Hill), Two Days In November (Poppy), Live and Pickin’ (United Artists), The Midnight Train (Sugar Hill), and On Praying Ground (Sugar Hill). He’s recorded solo, in old-time ensembles, with Merle, with Rosa Lee and other family members, with his regular accompanists, with Chet Atkins for RCA and Flatt & Scruggs for Columbia (Strictly Instrumental, reissued on County), and with studio aggregations of acoustic superstars. He has even waxed a well-received children’s album Songs For Little Pickers (Sugar Hill/Alacazam).
Doc Watson made the bedrock recordings of his career during the 1960s for Vanguard. Several of these projects, including the timeless Doc Watson, have been available on CD for several years. The boxed set, Doc Watson: The Vanguard Years, compiles the cream of his studio and live work for the label on four CD’s with seventeen previously unreleased cuts.
Having served him well for 35 years, Watson’s rapport with audience often gives the appearance, whether true or nor, of being more at ease on stage than off. 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. Doc’s the kind of man whose respect you crave. Generous samplings of his live work have appeared. Treasures Untold (Vanguard) shows him with family and Clarence White at the giant Newport Folk Festival, while On Stage (Vanguard) and Remembering Merle (Sugar Hill) capture the father and son in more intimate setting. Bill Monroe and Doc Watson: Live Duet Recordings, 1963-1980 (Smithsonian/Folkways) assembles not only concert tapes from the Ash Grove in LA to the White House, but informal jamming at a party.
Doc has nurtured a support network that has sustained him for four decades. Most of all his family – Rosa Lee, daughter Nancy, and his late son, best friend, and for much of twenty years, performing and traveling partner, Merle. Accompanists include today’s Jack Lawrence, Cliff Miller, who now runs a major sound company, and Chesapeake’s T. Michael Coleman, who compiled the exquisite live collection Remembering Merle (Sugar Hill). Watson has benefited from long-term relationships with agents Manny and Mitch Greenhill and recording company Barry Poss of Sugar Hill. During the difficult decade since Merle’s death, he’s come to rely on such folks as Merle Fest director B. Townes and Nashville guitarist/engineer/producer Scott Rouse.
All these factors have come together for Doc Watson to fuel his long career. He’s earned the admiration of musicians and the adoration of fans not because of technique, but because he plays with unmistakable feeling and soul. That soulful sincerity comes back to him. The roar of those enormous throngs at the Merle Fest when Doc emerges through the back door to the stage that bears his name makes the most cynical believe that music can change the world.