By Isa Jones
By Mary Willson
By Brian Turk
By Drew AIles
By Taylor Boylston
By Bree Davies
By Emerald O'Brien
Rinzler once recalled: "I asked Doc, whom I had never before met or heard, to use a non-electrified instrument, and he replied that he had no other guitar and would just prefer turning the volume lower and using his own electrically amplified Gibson." Rinzler, in effect, blew Watson off. After all, he had come to Tennessee in search of something "authentic," and a blind singer wielding a Les Paul just didn't fit the image. The next day, however, Rinzler heard Watson play some of the purest mountain banjo music he could have imagined.
"Those were the first few tunes I had ever heard him play," Rinzler would later write, "and I knew immediately that a man who could pick a banjo as Doc did would understand what kind of music we were in search of some 600 miles from New York."
The resulting album, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, helped put Watson on the folk-music map. In 1961, Rinzler brought Ashley, Watson, Clint Howard and Fred Price (billed as "Clarence Ashley and His Friends") to New York City, where they played the Greenwich Village folk clubs. Later, they did a one-week stint at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. It soon became obvious to Rinzler that Watson, with his compelling voice, his diverse repertoire and his dazzling guitar playing, was the main attraction. He convinced Watson that he could make a good living as a solo artist. That -- not the promise of stardom -- was Watson's main incentive for choosing a difficult life on the road. After all, he had a wife and two children to support -- and he was barely scraping by back home playing dances and tuning pianos. (State aid for the blind helped pay the bills.)
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)
"I told Ralph Rinzler that it was a gamble and I would try it, and I didn't know what would come of it," he says. " I loved the music and the audience, but I needed to earn a living for my family, not to get rich. I had no inklings or delusions of a hit record -- by that time, I'd gotten over that. You begin to realize, when you get up into your thirties and you've got two little kids at home, you want to do what you can and not have any delusions of grandeur about it -- just do it."
I ask Watson if he ever thinks about what his life would have been like if Rinzler, who died in 1994, hadn't come along. Characteristically, he doesn't talk about himself. "It would have been a lot harder on Rosa Lee," he offers. "It was tough on her the way it was, but it would have been so much harder."
Watson's first solo performances, recorded at Gerdes Folk City in New York in late 1962 and early 1963, can be heard in a fascinating disc released last year on Sugar Hill Records. Watson, who had borrowed a guitar from a friend and taken the bus by himself from North Carolina to New York, was terribly homesick, and he had (as he once put it) "a belly full of butterflies." But you wouldn't know it from the recording. On it, Watson sounds like a seasoned professional -- which in effect he was -- and his performing style seems wholly formed. He offers two dazzling Merle Travis finger-style instrumentals ("Blue Smoke," "Cannonball Rag"), several traditional folk songs ("Little Sadie," "The Roving Gambler"), two blues numbers ("St. Louis Blues," "Milk Cow Blues"), a fiddle tune ("Liberty"), a Grandpa Jones original ("Tragic Romance"), a sentimental ballad ("The Old Wooden Rocker"), a children's song ("Sing Song Kitty") and an a cappella hymn ("The Lone Pilgrim").
Forty years later, Watson is still defying musical categories. On his most recent album, Round the Table Again, recorded live with his group Frosty Morn (grandson Richard Watson, T. Michael Coleman, Bob Lamar Hill and Joe Smothers), Watson shifts easily from the traditional ("Coo Coo Bird," "Walking in Jerusalem") to the contemporary (Merle Haggard's "Workin' Man Blues," the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin"). And if his voice isn't quite as strong as it used to be, it's as smooth and clear as ever.
Watson recently went back to the studio with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band to record several songs for the upcoming Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Volume III.
Another recent project is the three-disc Legacy, which features Watson in conversation and performance with folklorist David Holt. (It's available at www.highwindy.com.) On it, Holt asks Watson how he'd like to be remembered. "Just as a good old, down-to-earth boy that didn't think he was perfect and that loved music," Watson replies. "And I'd like to leave quite a few friends behind, and I hope I will. Other than that, I don't want anybody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I'm just one of the people."
Despite his age, Watson is still in great demand as a performer, but it's been years since he's toured. (For a long time, he traveled around the country in a Winnebago, with Rosa Lee behind the wheel.) Instead, he prefers to do weekend shows, which allows him to leave Deep Gap on a Thursday or Friday and return home on a Sunday. These days, he's usually accompanied by two other stellar guitarists: his longtime friend Jack Lawrence and his grandson Richard, who looks an awful lot like his father, Merle.