doc watson, 1923-2012

doc watson

 One of my favorite performance snapshots of the great Doc Watson, who died yesterday at the age of 89, stems back to a rainy September evening at English Park in Owensboro.

The year was 1993 and the International Bluegrass Music Association Awards, still in its infancy, was winding up a day long festival with a bill featuring Alison Krauss, Del McCoury, Mac Wiseman, Tim O’Brien, the Nashville Bluegrass Band and, right around the dinner hour, the brilliantly unassuming guitarist from Deep Gap, North Carolina born Arthel Lane Watson.

It was cold and damp in a way that only a mid-autumn evening could get. “You can roll around in the mud,” remarked Krauss to the audience. “Makes it more interesting than just getting wet.”

But for an hour, Watson spilled some glorious acoustic sunshine around the festival site, teaming at various points with such stellar instrumentalists as Stuart Duncan and beckoning other festival artists to join him for his finale of Mama Don’t Allow No Music.

Sure, the guitarwork – an effortless blend of pre-bluegrass country, mountain soul and unassuming flat and finger picking grace – was sublime. But like so much of Watson’s music over the years, it possessed an authenticity that was pure, unspoiled and powerfully inviting. While his playing so often reached into the realm of virtuosos, his stage demeanor never left the back porch.

“I’m humbly proud, yes sir,” Watson told me prior to a May 1995 performance at the Kentucky Theatre, referring to a musical career that was then stretching into its fourth decade. “Not the pedestal type proud. But thankful. Very thankful.”

Coming to national prominence during an early ‘60s folk boom, Watson’s life and career were also defined by the obstacles he overcame.

Left blind by an eye infection as an infant, he told me that his music and career would have taken an entirely different route had he retained his sight.

“It was meant to be the way it is,” he said. “If I could see, music would have just been a hobby.”

The death of son and performance partner Merle Watson proved a far greater hardship.

“Playing with Merle… oh God, that was so wonderful. To work with Merle on the stage was like playing with your second self.”

Watson leaves a mountain of extraordinary music behind him. Highly recommended are 1964’s Doc Watson, 1975’s Memories, 1983’s Doc and Merle Watson’s Guitar Album and the 1997 collaboration with mandolinist David Grisman Doc and Dawg.

“The good Lord gave me the talent. So I believe it was right for me to earn a living for my family with it. It’s something that I love.”

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