Doc Watson (1923-2012) A Personal Tribute

November 8, 2012

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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