NASHVILLE SKYLINE: Why the World Will Remember Doc Watson

The Late North Carolina Singer and Picker Knew His Music

(NASHVILLE SKYLINE is a column by CMT/ Editorial Director Chet Flippo.)

There was a whole universe of music inside Doc Watson’s brain. He carried around with him thousands of songs that were part and parcel of the American musical experience. Folk and country, Appalachian tales and country blues, mountain gospel and dance songs — Doc knew them all. And he sang them with a warm, honeyed mountain baritone and flat-picked and finger-picked his guitar like no one else could or can.

The musical virtuoso, who died Tuesday (May 29) at age 89, seemed like a solid and stately lighthouse, one that would forever stand on the rocky shore and serve as a guide for all who sought safe musical harbor.

I was just listening again this afternoon to some of his contributions to the original Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the triple album he recorded with Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, Norman Blake, Pete “Oswald” Kirby, Junior Huskey and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.

In those live sessions recorded in East Nashville in 1971, Watson made it look easy, oh so deceptively. Just marvel as he — no rehearsal, no second takes — eases into the classic song “Tennessee Stud.”

Watson says, in replying to a question about the guitar runs he had just played, “That’s a horse’s foot in gravel, man! That ain’t a train! [That’s a horse] Runnin’ through a ford in a creek! Let’s see if we can put down a take.” And he was off to the races.

I first met Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson at those recording sessions and was immediately struck by his warmth and his empathy and his innate humility and modesty. And his wealth of knowledge about music and musicians and about musical history. Much of Appalachian and Southern music he knew firsthand from growing up in North Carolina and being tutored by his musical family and listening to 78 rpm records. What he didn’t know firsthand, he knew secondhand or by seeking it out or by osmosis. I can’t recall meeting or seeing a performing artist with a larger repertoire or a better understanding of all that material.

And he was a storyteller nonpareil. For someone who didn’t receive real exposure outside his region until he was 37, Doc emerged as a full-grown talent on the national music scene. He was playing electric guitar in a country swing dance band when he was “discovered” in his native North Carolina by the folklorist Ralph Rinzler. He soon became a sensation on the folk club and festival circuit.

Back to that Circle album, he contributed to most of the 36 songs on the album. But he sang very authoritative leads. Besides “Tennessee Stud,” that’s Doc’s lead vocal (and lead guitar) on “Way Downtown.” Additionally, he and his guitar lead the instrumentals on “Black Mountain Rag” and “Down Yonder.” That whole Circle package itself is a perfect introduction to the span of Southern musical history, from the Carter Family’s 1920s and 1930s plaintive mountain tales to the exuberance and driving rhythms of Scruggs’ and Martin’s bluegrass to Doc’s broad Southern repertory to Acuff’s old-time string band music to Travis’ coal mining tales.

One eminently enjoyable part of those sessions was getting to see Doc meet one of his guitar idols, Merle Travis, for the first time and to pick with him. Some of that meeting is captured in the record. They talk guitars after Merle tells Doc his guitar “rings like a bell.” Doc replies, “Mr. Gallagher [J.W. Gallagher of Gallagher Guitars] made this.”

I interviewed Doc with his son Merle (named for Merle Travis) for Rolling Stone a couple of years later, and it turned out to be a delightful time with Doc. He told me the story of what he considered his first real instrument, his banjo.

He was carrying stove wood into the house when his brother Lenny came through the yard with a large sack. Doc related the story thusly: “Dad said, ’What in the world you got in that sack, son?’ He said, ’Well, this’s that poor old cat of granny’s that she wants me to put it out of its misery. It’s got to where it can’t eat. It just lays around and suffers.’ Dad said, ’Well, make sure it don’t suffer.’ He turned around to me and said, ’I’ll tell you what. If you boys’ll skin that cat, I’ll make you a banjo head out of it.’ And I said, ’Whoever heared tell of a cat-hide for a banjo?’ He said, ’Well, they got one in this Sears Roebuck catalog. I believe I can make one.’

“It took me and Lenny two days to wash the smell off our hands. But that banjo head was almost transparent. It did make the finest banjo head you ever saw.”

Merle Watson was 24 at the time of that interview and had become a help to his blind father as tour companion and musician. During the interview Merle let slip that he didn’t at all care for country music and that his favorite band was the Allman Brothers. Merle later died in 1985 in a tractor accident.

I was later privileged to contribute liner notes for Doc’s double-album Memories, which I still consider to be one of the finest examples of his broad repertory of songs, with material ranging from original Doc Watson to the Carter Family to Jimmie Rodgers to Bill Monroe to the Delmore Brothers to Don Gibson. And Sam Bush sang and played many instruments on that album. I wrote in those notes that the album spanned entire genres and “included field hollers, black blues, sacred music, mountain music, gospel, rhythm and blues, even traces of jazz.”

After he died, I discovered Doc had 125 musical copyrights on file at BMI. Those are both original songs and traditional songs he had arranged or changed to make truly his own. It was obvious that no grass grew underneath his feet.

Doc Watson was a great man and a truly great musician and a genuine treasure. I feel honored to have known him.