Music to My Ears

Bluegrass In the Dark: Doc Watson

I have to tell you, blind musicians fascinate me.  Not because they obviously can play without looking.  I have been doing scales up and down various necks as long as I can remember and the patterns you learn become second nature.  I get that.  Sighted performers playing with passion can play with eyes closed, or even with the instrument behind their head.  But that’s because they’ve practiced a piece so many times they have the patterns memorized.

But a guy like Doc, blind from infancy, never saw a guitar neck.

Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson was born in 1923 in Stoney Fork Township near Deep Gap, North Carolina.  This boy was from the SOUTH.  He had musical parents who encouraged him to develop skills to deal with his disability.  They gave him a harmonica when he was about 7, and got his first stringed instrument, a fretless banjo, for his 11th birthday.  A fretless banjo.  Fretless.  His dad heard him fooling with a neighbor’s guitar and promised he’d buy Arthel one if he could learn a song in a day.  Family legend has it he learned ‘When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland’ by the Carters, and Pop bought the kid a $12 Stella.  Doc joked later in life that playing that guitar was like playing a barbed wire fence.  I’ve had guitars like that; they’re great for muscle development but man you gotta want it bad.

Doc was playing professionally around Raleigh before he was 20.  He picked up the electric and started playing in bands, primarily country because it paid the bills.  He eventually settled exclusively on the steel acoustic and began developing a flat pick style that even he said ‘shocked’ audiences.  He performed on street corners and nightclubs.  Here’s a picture of Doc and Clarence ‘Frog’ Greene street performing in Boone, NC in the 50’s.  I’m going to find a friend and nickname him Frog.

Doc watson frog

I do have a friend named Phlegm.  He is the nephew of a dear friend, and due to odd family circumstances they were fairly close in age.  Bill nicknamed Timmy ‘Phlegm’ when they were kids because Tim was always, well, a little wet.  The name stuck, and we’ve called Tim that his whole life.  Bill was the master of nicknames.  Somehow mine morphed from Woody to the Bone Man.  Phlegm had his own variations, like Phlegm Ball and Phlegmingo.   I love the look on folks’ faces when Tim unabashedly sticks his hand out and introduces himself.  You don’t come across many adults who introduce themselves as Phlegm.  We’d been calling him that for so long it became natural and lost it’s meaning to us and him.  New folks take some getting accustomed.

Doc Watson’s career took off at a later age.  He was 40 in 1963 when he played the Newport Folk Festival.  The rise of the folk music revival suited Doc’s style perfectly.  Not only did he have an encyclopedic knowledge of folk and American roots music like bluegrass, but he could play like the wind.  He pioneered the flat pick bluegrass guitar style learning fiddle tunes, which is still the best way to begin learning this technique.  Bob Dylan described Watson’s playing as listening to running water.  And that’s a beautiful analogy.  His solos ran with such fluidity you could hear the sound of summer drifting in and out of the cattails.

Here’s Doc playing ‘Stagger Lee’.  Oh yeah, the boy could sing too.

Watson started playing with his son Merle in about ’65 and toured as Doc and Merle for the next 20 years.  The folk craze started dying down towards the end of the 60’s but got a shot in the arm in 1972 when several big names in country music, including Doc, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Merle Travis recorded Will the Circle Be Unbroken with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band.  Doc played a Jimmy Driftwood number called Tennessee Stud on the album and that became a standard in Doc’s shows for the rest of his life.  This cut actually chokes me up a little.

Merle Watson died tragically in 1985 when a tractor he was driving flipped over on him.  Doc retreated in grief from playing for a short time but returned supported by guitarist Jack Lawrence and T. Michael Coleman on bass.  I was lucky enough to see Doc with Merle in the late 70’s at a bluegrass festival in Hartford, Ct.  That was one of the softest and perfect summer nights I’ve ever experienced.

If you’ve gotten through thus far you’re at least partially interested if not an avid Doc Watson fan.  My first experience was a Doc and Merle album I picked up in 1975 called Two Days in November because it was recorded in two days in 1974, later winning a Grammy for Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording.  If you have no other recording by Doc you should have this one.  It truly encapsulates much of Doc’s different styles.  This is Poor Boy Blues from that recording.

We lost Doc in 2012 at 89 years old.  He performed pretty much until the end, there are vids of him in a 2009 concert at 86.  He sounds great.  Doc left behind a discography that defines and underlines a great American musical tradition, the performance of folk and bluegrass, and specifically, just wonderful music.  We were fortunate that we realized his power and legacy long before he was gone so there is a wealth of recordings and videos that will keep him close to our hearts forever.  It was first famously said of Johnny B. Goode, but Doc Watson absolutely played the guitar like ringing a bell.