As a child, Arthel “Doc” Watson learned to play banjo on an instrument his father had made from, among other things, the hide of his grandmother’s recently deceased cat.
Having also mastered harmonica at a tender age, the 13-year-old Watson started on guitar, the story goes, when he borrowed one and taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland.” This pleased the young prodigy’s dad so much that he helped his son buy a $12 Stella six-string acoustic.
Watson was born in 1923 near what is now Deep Gap, N.C. Blind since his first birthday, it’s safe to assume that he grew up listening: His mother, Annie Watson, sang traditional songs around the house, and his father, General Watson, was a banjo player.
A Deep Gap relative and neighbor, Gaither Carleton, was a fine old-time fiddle player, and the boy picked with him some. In 1947, Watson and Gaither’s daughter Rosa Lee (Watson’s third cousin) married and had two kids — Eddie Merle and Nancy Ellen. Watson began playing local dances and live radio shows. At some point, someone in an audience pegged him with the nickname “Doc” — after Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick — and it stuck.
By the time he was 30 or so, Watson was playing electric guitar professionally with local swing piano player Jack Williams and his band. They played dance halls and bars — country swing, rockabilly and some uptempo square-dance tunes. And because the band didn’t have a fiddle player, Williams had Watson do a lot of melody playing. This doubtless helped him develop his famous straight-ahead flat-picking style. “I wasn’t a hot jazz player,” he said during a recent brief telephone interview. “But I got to where I could play a pretty good single- or double-stop lead.”
All the while, Watson kept up his older musical relationships, playing and singing with his family and old-time musicians like Clint Howard, Fred Price and banjo great Clarence Ashley. Then, in 1960, when what Jerry Garcia called “The Great Folk Scare” was breaking over the nation, famed producer Ralph Rinzler came down to record Ashley. In the process, he heard Watson. By 1961, Rinzler had recorded both and persuaded Doc to put down the electric guitar, pick up the acoustic, and go on tour with Ashley.
“I was skeptical about it,” Watson admits. “You know — whether people would enjoy a man sitting down and playing the old things, the old music I cut my teeth on. I didn’t know what to think about that, but I said, ‘Well, it may be a gamble, but I’ll try.'”
As it happened, his guitar and his rich baritone won over crowds from college campuses to New York City’s Carnegie Hall to the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. “I couldn’t believe the attendance, the audiences we found,” he says, still seemingly surprised after almost 40 years. “But it was certainly rewarding to … have people listen to you for a change, instead of having ’em smoke and drink and party and dance. … “
By the early ’70s, the folk craze had died down, but Doc kept touring and recording with his son, Merle, who had become quite a picker himself. This legendary partnership ended with Merle’s tragic death in a tractor accident in 1985.
Now, at age 75 (and almost against his will — his shyness and humility are almost as famous as his music), Watson has achieved the status of a national treasure. Over the years, he’s won five Grammy awards (four of them with Merle), a National Heritage Fellowship and, recently, a National Medal of Arts, awarded by President Clinton.
Just a few weeks ago, Boone, N.C., declared July 18 the first annual Doc Watson Appreciation Day. “I’m very humbly proud of [all the attention], but it’s kind of scary,” Watson notes. “I’m a fellow who … I don’t know, sometimes with all that attention, you feel like you want to run and hide. But I really appreciate it.”
He’s usually billed as a folk act, and he’s often credited with inventing the art of flat-picking fiddle tunes on a flattop guitar, but Watson’s interest and repertoire extend to bluegrass, soulful blues, show tunes, swing and beyond. In 1995, he released Docabilly (Sugar Hill), a labor of love that featured a slew of Nashville guest artists and revisited his old-time country-swing days.
“[Old-time] was my introduction to music in life,” he remembers. “But I grew into loving a lot of different kinds of music. If a song has something to say, I’m liable to learn it and sing it. … I put my heart into [Docabilly]. I always wanted to do an album of that material — it’s music that I love. Early rockabilly was akin to later rock ‘n’ roll, but 99 percent of those old songs had something to say — musically, as well as lyrically.”
Though one of his few regrets is his inability to see the faces of his loved ones, Watson is generally dismissive of his blindness, considering it more a small annoyance than a disability. When I called his booking agency, Folklore, to set up our interview, employee Mary Katherine Aldin told me, “Doc built and wired his own house, and it passed inspection on the first go-round. I don’t think the blindness is really an issue.”
With Merle, Doc would sometimes spend upward of 300 days a year on the road; nowadays, he doesn’t get out quite so much. He picks and chooses his gigs a bit more carefully, leaving plenty of time to host the huge (and still growing) MerleFest — the annual Merle Watson Memorial Music Festival in North Wilkesboro, N.C., held the last weekend in April.
Even though Merle is gone, his musical spirit lives on in his son, Richard, who’s been playing with Watson off and on — at MerleFest and elsewhere — since 1991. Rumor has it there’s a good chance he’ll share the Bele Chere stage with his grandfather.
“My grandson’s … getting better all the time,” says Watson proudly, adding, “I think we’re gonna get a good crowd [at Bele Chere]. I’m gonna enjoy it.”