The Picking's Good

Doc Watson has played across five decades of bluegrass music.

Arthel "Doc" Watson, the legendary folk singer and guitarist, answers the phone at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, where he lives with his wife, Rosa Lee.

"Hello," he says. "Who is this?"

I state my name and purpose and inquire how he's doing. "If I complain," he says in his unmistakable North Carolina drawl, "I'd think something was wrong. Ain't no use to complain about nothin.'"

Doc Watson and his guitar continue down the line.
Doc Watson and his guitar continue down the line.

Details

7 p.m. Friday, July 26
$28, 720-865-3500

Performing as part of RockyGrass 2002
With Béla Fleck & Chris Thile, Hot Rize, Tim O'Brien Band and the Sam Bush Bluegrass Band
9 a.m. Saturday, July 27
Planet Bluegrass Festival Grounds, 500 West Main Street, Lyons
303-823-0848 (Sold out)

Denver Botanic Gardens, 1005 York Street

Now 79, Watson is well-known for his engaging personality and colorful language, but it's his stunning musicianship that has made him a much-revered American icon. By picking out lightning-fast mountain fiddle tunes on his acoustic flat-top guitar, Watson has influenced just about anybody who's ever played bluegrass guitar. (Though "bluegrass" is certainly much too narrow a description for what he does.) He's recorded more than fifty albums and won six Grammy awards. He's been called a "flat-picking genius," although he's an adept fingerpicker, as well.

As fast a player as he is, Watson's music has always been more about taste than speed, and his rich baritone voice may well be his most expressive instrument. Still, Watson will forever be famous for his hot licks.

I tell Watson that I first heard him on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a landmark album that joined the California country-rock band with some of Nashville's most venerated traditional country-music artists, including Roy Acuff, Earl Scruggs and Maybelle Carter. (Released in 1972, it was recently reissued in a special thirtieth-anniversary edition.) At that time, I was a novice bluegrass-guitar player, and I would listen to Watson's contributions -- songs like "Tennessee Stud" and "Down Yonder" -- over and over, trying to figure out how the hell he could make his fingers go so fast on the fretboard. Even with my turntable set at 16 rpm, Watson still left me in the dust.

Watson seems uncomfortable when I tell him how much I've always admired his playing.

"I want to tell you a little story about me being on that album," Watson says, not exactly changing the subject, but definitely steering it in a slightly different direction. "I won't go into disagreeable things that might hurt somebody's feelings, but for whatever reason, they didn't invite Merle to be on that album, and so I wasn't going to do it."

Merle Watson, Doc's son, was 23 at the time and had already spent several years on the road with his father. A superb guitarist in his own right, Merle was crushed to death by a farm tractor in 1985. He was 36.

"I said, 'No way, son,' " Watson continues. "By that time, he was a budding musician. I mean, he was coming along, just about to blossom out good. And he said, 'Dad, it hurt my feelings, but go ahead and do it. Our career is at a low ebb right now, and it'll get us heard in audiences where we've never been heard before.' And it sure did. He had a lot of good sense. You have to think ahead in your career, and I let my hurt feelings override that."

(On the album, Watson can be heard telling Merle Travis, one of his guitar heroes, that he named his son after him: "I figured that a little of that good guitar pickin' might rub off on him." Travis laughs and replies, "Look who's talking.")

Circle is just one of the many highlights in Watson's fifty-year professional career, which began in the '40s on the streets of Boone, North Carolina, where Watson, blind since infancy, would earn a few dollars playing for passersby. During the '50s, he traded in his acoustic guitar for a Gibson Les Paul electric model when he joined a local country swing band called the Country Gentlemen. Inspired by Hank Garland and Grady Martin -- two of Nashville's finest session guitarists, who were known to occasionally pick out fiddle tunes on their electric instruments -- Watson started playing electric lead on songs like "Sugarfoot Rag" and "Old Joe Clark."

"I tried to play the fiddle, but I couldn't do it," Watson says. "My right hand just couldn't handle that bow the way it's supposed to be handled. So I said, 'By golly, I'll play some of these fiddle tunes on the guitar. If they can do it, I can.'" Watson played his share of traditional music for the Saturday-night square dancers, but he had no qualms about throwing in an occasional rock-and-roll number, such as "Tutti Frutti," "Blue Suede Shoes" and other hits. Watson had to draw a line somewhere, however: "Nothing loud and rocky," he insists.

When he was discovered by folklorist Ralph Rinzler in 1960, at the height of the folk-music revival, Watson was still playing his Les Paul -- he didn't even own an acoustic guitar. Rinzler had traveled to Mountain City, Tennessee, to record Clarence Ashley, an old-time banjo player who had cut some 78s in the '30s and whom Rinzler had met at a North Carolina fiddlers' convention. Ashley put together a small group of musicians, including Watson, who arrived with his electric guitar.

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