Doc Watson--one of the purest and most soulful figures in country music history--has never been on commercial radio and was denied Young Country's chance to reap teen coin. "If it had been done all over," says Doc from his porch in Deep Gap, North Carolina, "I think 'Freight Train Boogie' might have hit the top of the charts. Somebody had been feeling [Watson's late son] Merle out once, and he said, 'Dad, what do you think about goin' commercial?' And I said, 'You want an honest answer, son?' He said, 'Yeah, and I hope it's the way I feel about it.' I said, 'I don't want no part of that rat race. Let's do what we're doin' and try to stay alive in the business.' He said, 'Them's my thoughts, exactly.'"
Like Frank Sinatra, Doc Watson--musical heritage made man, making music--stands head and shoulders above mere technicians. He is the preeminent interpreter of our musical landscape, the epitome of an entire segment of American music that includes the whole kettle of Southern folk music--Smoky Mountain rags and waltzes, Jimmie Rodgers yodels, hymns and ballads, Carter Family standards, and bluegrass. Watson was among the first to transpose mountain fiddle music to guitar, and his crisp flat-picking innovations pushed country acoustic guitar from its background rhythm role into the spotlight.
Now 73, Watson's performances are still mesmerizing. His down-home manner is as open as a grandfather's, but his craggy, lined features--heavy brows shading his sightless eyes--convey nothing but authority, control and command, the standard by which any musician can be measured. His roots--deep in the rocky soil of America's heritage--are a ringing rebuke to a country music industry watered down by corporate homogenization. Watson can breathe such emotion into a sad civil war ballad that you would swear he just returned from the battle, the smell of blood and black powder still on his clothes. When he sings a murderous 19th-century song about wife-drowning [then a popular genre], you might consider him a suspect.
"Maybe I am an interpreter," he speculates. "When I do a new song, it'll come out Doc Watson; it won't come out a copy. If you're a natural musician with some God-given talent, an arrangement just comes out. Unless you're a copycat, you won't learn it exactly the way the original person played it."
Watson never considered the potential of his own songwriting. "I don't have the gift for poetry," he claims. "Melody would be easier to come by for me. The only two songs that I wrote that I'm proud of are 'Call of the Road,' on the Southbound album, and 'Life is Like A River' on [the recent Sugar Hill album] My Dear Old Southern Home."
Watson's oeuvre includes 30 albums. Many are minor masterpieces, and his current label, Sugar Hill, has just reissued four of them on CD; some of them are Doc solo, while others feature him and Merle. His personal favorites are Southbound, Doc & Merle Watson Onstage, and the recent Remembering Merle. These works echo with memories of the son with whom he forged a strong partnership and who still dominates his thoughts. Merle was road manager, chauffeur, companion, and musical accompanist for his blind father for more than two decades; the loss of Merle in 1985 in a tractor accident seemed insurmountable.
"Many times, I'd been on the road," Doc confesses, "and--sometimes physically, sometimes with my heart--gone to my knees and said, 'Lord, if you don't help me with this, I can't take it.' Doing without Merle was one of the hardest things I've done in my life, but it's becoming easier. I guess the music may have helped, but I'll tell you something: I built a utility building on the property; took me three months. That helped me as much with the grieving as anything, because I was by myself. If I felt like shedding a tear while I drove nails, I could do it. Brother, let me tell you, without faith, I'd already be gone."
Doc and Merle had worked as a duo since the so-called folk boom of the early '60s, when the form's popularity made a decent touring wage possible. Times got tougher after Woodstock. "We paid dues from '64, but there was a period when Merle and I had a pretty rough time of it in the late '60s," Doc recalls. "The music had a low ebb."
Things changed in 1972, after Watson appeared on the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken, the three-record album on which a youthful, long-haired Nitty Gritty Dirt Band paid homage to its heroes. One of the first instances of the rock culture paying attention to its country roots, the album arguably foretold the coming of country rock and today's Americana movement; it went gold and is still the source of a few hard feelings and a lot of pride. "They didn't invite Merle to work on the Circle album, which made me very angry," remembers Doc. "But it was one of the best things that happened to good, down-to-earth, solid, old-time country hillbilly music."
Circle goosed the twilight careers of pioneers Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, and Roy Acuff; Watson never saw his royalties. As that long-ago talk with Merle about "goin' commercial" indicates, however, Doc never was one to fret too much about industry matters; when asked how many copies one of his albums sells, he sighs. "You've asked me a question I couldn't answer if the Lord told me."
The extraordinary Jack Lawrence has been Doc's road partner and guitarist for the past 10 years. Watson has announced he was calling it quits several times, but thankfully he seems to prefer a state of semiretirement, playing around a dozen gigs a year, one-tenth of his old schedule. "I wanna draw some of that social security, but I'm getting better money now than before I went into retirement," Doc reports, "and I get to be at home with Mama [wife Rosa Lee] one heck of a lot more. I may do another album or two, or I may not. I'll be straight and honest with you: I'm not as interested in learning new stuff as I used to be. Maybe my head's gotten a little lazy, but I still like to pick."
"Pickin' and grinnin'," as Doc modestly refers to his craft, is something in which he has remained superlative. Most artists hit a peak at some point in their life, but few can stretch that summit out into a broad plateau; Watson's guitar and vocal chops grow stronger with each passing decade. Only recently has he slowed down, delegating more solos to the fierce Lawrence.
Never one to acquire a studio tan, Watson's albums are still cut like traditional jazz records. Recorded live in the studio with few overdubs, they are immaculate conceptions without frills or big-budget indulgences. Reflections, the deceptively simple-titled masterpiece recorded in 1979 with Chet Atkins, sounds like it took a lifetime to produce.
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"We swapped some tapes in September," Doc recalls. "I believe it was November when we did the actual session. The first day we did a full session, getting acquainted with each other. We threw that out; came back the second day and did the album in one and a half sessions [four and a half hours]."
He continues. "I guess you could say, in our own styles, we're accomplished musicians. I know Chet is. He had to get used to my style and what wouldn't collide with it, and I had to get used to his style and not feel overshadowed by the man. He's a super, colossal master on the guitar."
The Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, has its 10th anniversary this upcoming April. Originally conceived by Doc's wife, Rosa Lee, and daughter, Nancy, to raise funds for a memorial garden for Merle at Wilkes Community College, "Merlefest" drew 40,000 people last year and has long avoided hat acts, trends, and NashVegas vulgarity. Doc is the symbolic host, leading a few jams and screening some of the talent. "I get up there and welcome everybody Thursday night when it's kicked off," he explains. "It's family-oriented. You can bring your children and not be afraid there'll be somebody out of their mind on drugs that'll harm 'em. I play a blues set with my grandson, and with a bunch of people on their shows. I'm kinda woven through the festival. If I'm not pickin', I'm walkin' around talkin' to people. I don't help run it; I'm just there. I wouldn't have it no other way."
Doc Watson makes a rare appearance at Poor David's Pub on Sunday, August 11, for two shows.