The Picking's Good
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.'"
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.
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.)
"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.
"It's a joy and a pleasure," Watson says of playing with his grandson. "Sometimes I forget and call him Merle, and he says, 'That's all right, Pa. I don't mind a bit.'"
After a few more minutes of conversation, Watson says abruptly, "I'm gonna have to go in a minute, son." He thanks me for calling; after only thirty minutes on the phone with him, I'm reluctant to let him go, but I do. "You take care," he says. "I'll be lookin' forward to shake a howdy with you."
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