Doc Watson

The Beatles and the Folk Revival both had my attention in the early mid '60's and my friends were playing Sears catalogue guitars, and I learned a lick or two before getting my own little red Stella acoustic for $30. That was when I was 12, so around 1966, I was going through my new songbooks – Joan Baez, the Beatles, and one of the songs of another prominent voice: Roger Miller. I heard some Flatt and Scruggs on TV and then by ‘68 I’d gotten a glimpse and a simultaneous earful of this guy Doc Watson.

His sound and his brilliance were intoxicating. With my new musical direction, Doc soon replaced baseball star Roberto Clemente as my hero. I sought him out at the local department store record section, and found the Strictly Instrumental LP with Flatt and Scruggs, and learned a little of John Hardy and Spanish Two Step. My parents knew of my obsession and woke me early one morning because he was about to appear on network TV’s Today show. A year or so later I got to see him live at the Ohio University Folk Festival in Athens Ohio. I remember the night well. My friend Pete Bachman and I were so excited. We were at the very back of the sports arena where he was playing, and we waited through a rock band called McKendree Spring. They had an electric violin player, and that was cool, but we were waiting for the real thing. When Doc finally started we were too excited to stay in our seats and we made out way down closer to the stage. It was Doc and his son Merle and they were still not using guitar pickups and it sounded so right and we just ate it up.

I guess the think with Doc was he grabbed you first with that guitar playing. It was obvious to me that this was the way to play the thing. I was too naïve to realize how hard it would be, impossible now that I think about it, to do it like Doc, to sound that way. So you’re under that spell, and if you’re like me, you’re into all kinds of music and especially hot guitar stuff, and here he is just nailing it. It’s bluegrass based, but then he also does the fingerpicking thing, teaching folks like me about Merle Travis’ music. And he sings the folky hits like Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing On My Mind”, but also sneaks in old ballads like “Little Sadie” and “Omie Wise.” He gives you clues in his MC work so you remember names like Travis and Gid Tanner and Mississippi John Hurt. So under Doc’s shining aura you get this overview of the greater American music repertoire and beyond a bit. Celtic music, for instance, is right behind his bluegrass renditions of fiddle tunes. So back then in 1966 Doc set me up to go on this musical feeding frenzy and growth spurt. Other stuff came to my attention and I’d focus on that – Bob Wills and Django for instance – but I kept going back to Doc and his music.

That has never changed. I’m still going back to Doc and a select few others who have been my musical tour guides.

In 1974 I went out on my own as a musician after trying college for a year. I went to Jackson Hole, Wyoming and got a gig in a pizza joint accommodations in a back room as a perk. I played Doc Watson and Norman Blake and Hank Williams and Bob Wills. When people found out I was from West Virginia, they said, oh yeah, you know about country and bluegrass music and they took me more seriously. I just played it because I liked it along with everything else, but it became a calling card – being from West Virginia and playing country stuff. From Wyoming I hitched to California, arriving in Berkeley the day Patty Hearst was kidnapped. Scuffling around Berkeley, I found a used Doc Watson Family LP for sale and bought it, amazed that you could buy a Doc record used. From there I hitched to Boulder Colorado and made a visit to the Denver Folklore Center. They had all the Doc recordings for sale there, and I thought, “Berkeley is cool, but Colorado is cooler.” I ended up moving to Boulder that fall, and the Folklore Center was the place where people met and formed up into musical units. Hot Rize played gigs together before we had a name, as we all worked there in one way or another, teaching lessons, selling or repairing guitars. I just saw a poster from our very first formal concert, February 4th, 1978. It was Doc Watson at Colorado Women’s College. At the bottom of the poster is copy that reeds “and introducing Hot Rize.”

Over the years, I’d hunt for old songs as well as write some new ones. When I thought I’d found a good old folk song that nobody else was doing, I’d learn it and maybe sing it on stage and even record it, after which I’d find out that both Doc Watson and Jerry Garcia had already done so.

Doc welcomed me at Merlefest each year, and one year I asked him to sit in on my set. I was selfish and had the rest of the band sit out, and we played two guitars and I tried unsuccessfully to be Merle for a few minutes. He even sat in with Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers once, wearing sunglasses and cutting up like I never seen him do.

Last February, I was near his home doing a concert, and got the nerve to call him. After some confusion about who I was and all, I was invited to his home. An hour later, as I arrived in a snow storm and turned the car off, I could hear his guitar and voice. The song was “While Roving On A Winter’s Night.” I looked through the door and saw him sitting there with his wife’s small bodied Gallagher guitar. It was flawless and beautiful and I waited until he finished to knock on the door.

Doc’s gone now and it’s a sad thing, but he’s inside so many of us and his influence is so great that he’s not very far away. We’re lucky for that. Thanks Doc.

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by R & T