In Memory of Doc Watson (1923-2012)
Since Doc Watson's passing on Tuesday, May 29 (apparently due to long-standing health problems), the Internet has overflowed with obituaries and memorials eulogizing the many accomplishments of the 89-year-old guitar virtuoso from Deep Gap, North Carolina. Indeed, the impact of his flat-picking style is profound and far-reaching. He's commonly labeled "bluegrass" or "old time." But as is the case with any genuine pioneer, he soaked up myriad idioms, from country blues and classic jazz to Southern gospel and cowboy music; in the process, he helped transform the acoustic guitar from a primarily rhythmic instrument into one appropriate for taking leads and unveiling solo compositions (think Norman Blake, Tony Rice and the late Clarence White).
Moreover, due to his fortitude and powerful sense of self, he collapsed the tradition/innovation dichotomy that has, in all honesty, plagued folk music since Northeastern liberals like Pete Seeger imagined they "revived" the form in the late 1950s and '60s. In other words, Watson wasn't an anthropological specimen hauled out of the backwoods; he was a (capital A) Artist making (capital A) Art, one who just so happened to be a rural Southern blind man born and raised in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains.
This Yankee transplant now calls those mountains home, too (though a little further south, in Asheville), and I can't help but think of Watson's death in terms of what it means to this region in particular. For while the rest of the country mourns, southern Appalachia does so in a way that's more like a family losing its oldest elder. I'm not being hyperbolic when I say he is worshipped throughout western North Carolina (Virginia and Tennessee as well). A goodly amount of this worship has to do with his instrumental prowess. If there's anything I've learned since moving here, it's that Appalachia loves its folk music, especially a skilled picker, and none were more skilled than Watson, a true master of balancing complexity and melody. He could mimic perfectly the patiently droning trickle of a small stream as it makes its way off the mountain. Other times, his fingers would move so fast Watson sounded as if he was bending space and time.
His sprawling discography is packed with telling examples of this exemplary musicianship. Yet if I had to pick a single record to start with, it would be Southbound, originally released in 1966 on Vanguard Records. The album is also notable for containing some of his very best vocals (dig the Jimmie Rodgers-inspired yodel on "Never No Mo' Blues"). Watson's smooth baritone might not have been as flashy as his fretwork, yet it betrayed a deep understanding of the tales being sung.
This deep understanding is an expression of Watson's upbringing. After all, he himself was like a character out of an Appalachian folk tale. He lived a rural life filled with as much perseverance and determination as sadness and tragedy. One of nine children, he came to terms with his disability through manual labor. With help from his father, he learned how to use saws, hammers and other tools. (Would such vocations even be an option, nowadays?) His mother, meanwhile, sang the old ballads while working around the house. And, of course, the Watson family was steeped in the gospel music of the local Baptist church. Outside of a brief stint at a school for the blind in Raleigh, Watson never left the Deep Gap area. As time marched on, he raised his own family not more than five miles from his childhood home. His son Merle even became his most notable collaborator over the years. Tragically, their partnership ended when Merle died during a tractor accident on the family farm back in 1985.
Roots, family, hard work.... these things weigh heavy on Appalachia. I remember seeing Watson in 2008 at the Rhythm & Roots Reunion in Bristol, a town whose main street straddles the Tennessee and Virginia border (and yes, it's the same Bristol where Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family cut their first sides). I was half-expecting a crowd of veteran folk revivalists and local old timers who were Watson's age. However, by the time the show started in the early evening (an outdoors stage next to the County Music Mural downtown), the audience was a mass of Appalachians of every age and generation: grandparents, parents, toddlers and adolescents. There were even teens and college-aged kids who looked as though they'd rather listen to the latest hip-hop or metal, yet the entire audience sat utterly transfixed by all the archaic songs and tales they had grown up with. And that's when it dawned on me just how proud Appalachians are of Watson. He is their hero and legend, first and foremost.