An appreciation: Doc Watson, flatpicker, song stylist, messenger
Doc Watson, who died Tuesday at age 89, never had a hit record, and none of his albums ever went gold. This truth, a shame considering his talent, his influence on the guitar and the beauty of his dynamic baritone, should serve as inspiration to any musician interested in the long game, in making music that endures not because of its shock value or its keen marketplace vision but because within its measured tones lies universal truth.
Also reassuring to starving artists should be the notion that the North Carolina-born Watson, who lost his eyesight as a toddler after an infection, didn’t record his debut album until 1964, when he was over 40 and had been simmering in North Carolina, perfecting his craft for over three decades. At the time when a bunch of college kids in New York were falling in love with so-called “folk music,” bringing a name to the American-born acoustic sounds created in the rural South, Watson had been playing backup to banjo player Tom “Clarence” Ashley, learning sounds that Ashley, born in 1895, inherited in rural Tennessee.
Unlike the more guttoral, raw folk stuff created by players like Ashley, Bascom Lamar Lunsford and Dock Boggs, Watson at his best was a sunnier presence, less a conduit to the “old weird America,” as Greil Marcus famously described the raw American folk music of the 1920s and '30s, than the “old resilient America.”
Watson, like Pete Seeger and Burl Ives, sang and played in glorious tune, was a stickler for tone, and conveyed his acoustic lines with a driving fluidity. Listening to his early sides recorded for Vanguard, his work on the seminal celebration of old-time music, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and the music created during his decades on Flying Fish Records, you can hear the work of a master whose style, though refined, was never academic. He never misses a stroke or a strike, singing melodic runs with his voice that move in glorious counterpoint to the notes springing from his guitar.
You can spot his picking style by its grace: It’s as though his loss of eyesight had not only sharpened his hearing, but filled with light the conduit that connected his brain to his fingertips. What he imagined, he played.
But, then, it was instilled in him at birth. Music was the heirloom that Watson, born Arthel Lane Watson in 1923, inherited from his father, named General Watson, himself a banjo player who taught his son a love and enthusiasm for stringed instruments. General was so fixed on his son’s talent that, after he was confident of the younger Watson's skills, he built his son a fretless banjo from scratch.
General also bought the family a 78 player when the technology was fresh, and Doc heard firsthand the music, new at the time, that collectors and archivists still covet nearly a century later. On the family farm in rural North Carolina, a little island of desegregation allowed blues songs to mix alongside cowboy yodelers and gospel choirs. By his late teens, he was playing square dances at the local American Legion Hall and figuring out how to play fiddle lines on guitar. These adaptations became the substance of a style that drew on bluegrass “flatpicking” guitar technique.
Like Mississippi John Hurt, another veteran player who achieved greater fame after Bob Dylan and the success of the Newport Folk Festival had opened the gates for workingman blues, Watson had a voice that shined with optimism even when he was delivering bad news. His version of “Worried Man’s Blues,” for example, bounces along despite its message, the subtext being that the condition will pass with a new day.
And in Watson’s hands, “Whiskey Before Breakfast” is one of the happiest, most wonderful guitar instrumentals you’ll ever hear, a jaunt that seems to celebrate, not bemoan, a sip of rye before the morning coffee, as if he’s frolicking toward the bottle.
The other good thing about never going gold, or having a single artistic “peak,” is that it affords one the opportunity to continually climb upward without concern for looking back. Watson made astounding, timeless music into his 70s, and hit peak after peak. His 1980 collaboration with fellow guitarist Chet Atkins saw the two towering guitarists trade licks side by side, and a few years later he joined Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs for a PBS documentary called "Three Pickers."
And though Watson was better known as an interpreter than a songwriter, Robert Plant and Alison Krauss reminded the world of his prowess when they covered one of his best-known songs on the Grammy-winning "Raising Sand" in 2007. Amid other classics, the pair recorded Watson and his wife Rosa Lee's song "Your Long Journey," about the approach of death. The album went platinum many times over and offered yet another opportunity to appreciate an artist whose work will, like the songs he interpreted, endure for generations to come.
-- Randall Roberts
Photo: Music legend Doc Watson, who died Tuesday, performs at the annual Merlefest at Wilkes Comunity College in Wilkesboro, N.C., on April 28, 2001. Credit: Alan Marler / Associated Press.