MY FIRST TASTE OF DOC WATSON’S
genius came from Country Music and Bluegrass
at Newport: 1963—a compilation of live performances culled from the Newport Folk Festival. I bought the album for Jim & Jesse and
Allen Shelton’s banjo playing, but I was trans-
ﬁxed by Watson’s solo guitar performances—a ﬂatpicking rendition of “Black Mountain Rag,”
his guitar translation of a well-known ﬁddle
tune, and “Doc’s Guitar,” a ﬁngerpicked tour
deforce. More than that, Watson’s guitar
accompaniment on “Maggie Walker Blues”
with Clarence Ashley, Fred Price, and Clint
Howard was punctuated with dark and funky
ﬁ lls that could have easily come from his electric guitar chops.
Up until that point, I’d been a dedicated
banjo player, but Watson’s performances pulled
me toward the guitar. I spent weeks slowing
down his tracks to try to catch every nuance.
“Black Mountain Rag” took the picking conventions of bluegrass and supercharged them
with lightning-fast, note-for-note renditions of ﬁddle tunes using alternating up-and-down
strokes, and banjo-style rolling effects. Other
bluegrass musicians, such as Don Reno, helped
to move bluegrass guitar front-and-center as
a lead instrument, but none could spin off
ﬂ ashy solo lines as articulately, or with an
innately smooth and relaxed feel as Watson.
About three years after I first discovered Watson, he came to New York City for
a week’s stay at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. That Sunday, along with man-
dolinist David Grisman and several other
friends, Watson paid a visit to the Village’s
storied Sunday jams at Washington Square
Park. I managed to insinuate myself into the
jam session with Watson, playing banjo. As
nervous as I was, Watson’s encouragement
and support relaxed me, and when I left that
session, I was ﬂoating a few feet above the
ground. Bringing younger musicians into his
circle and supporting them was emblematic
of Watson. In later years, he recorded with
Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, and, of course, his son,
the late Merle Watson. Watson also continued to collaborate with his friends and con-
temporaries. In the late ’60s, I was always
sure to catch his rare duet appearances with
Bill Monroe at the Philadelphia Folk Festival.
Somehow, in concert with Watson, Monroe
took on a more relaxed and less-imposing
demeanor, and the music was a casual get-
together of two musical friends.
It’s not uncommon to hear about the
legacy left to us by the passing of a musical giant. Doc Watson left guitarists with
an entire universe to explore, and he did
it with a humble grace that touched every-
one who met him. His music was a major
influence on players such as Tony Rice,
Clarence White, Jerry Garcia, and scores
of other luminaries in the guitar community. Watson’s guitar work is still held in
awe. As Texas songwriter Guy Clark wrote
in his song “Dublin Blues:”
“I have seen the David
I’ve seen the Mona Lisa too
I have heard Doc Watson
Play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’ …”
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