A dark February weekend lights up thanks to a drive into the mountains for Doc Watson's music and a good cause. Make that two good causes.
How to avoid the Friday night blues? Indulge in more blues. Two weeks ago I made my way north to Statesville, North Carolina, then due west to North Wilkesboro. Snow was blowing hard and it took longer than expected to reach my destination, but I was seeking a remedy, and Doc Watson had the cure.
My mood took a surprising upswing once I made the westward turn. Out of Statesville, heading towards the Blue Ridge Mountains, the stress of the urban world shrank to a speck of dust in my rearview mirror. I wound around the two-lane highway, past cow pastures and barns, the homes spread apart, farm animals on either side of the road, These simple gifts of rural life are often overlooked in our fast-paced attempts to find little pleasures.
I was heading for a benefit concert hosted jointly by Doc Watson and the Kruger Brothers, a trio from Switzerland who have settled in Western North Carolina. Joel Landsberg, bassist for the Kruger Brothers, explained they wanted to do something to help the people of Haiti after January’s 7.0 earthquake. (Talk about the Blues!) They decided to use their musical talents to raise money for the Wilkes-Alleghany Chapter of the American Red Cross, funds that would be sent on for the Haitian relief work. When the Kruger Brothers contacted neighbor and 8-time Grammy award winner, Doc Watson, he was all in for this event.
The 86-yearold Watson is legendary performer. He has blended traditional Appalachian music with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues, creating a unique style and an expansive repertoire.
He was born in Stoney Fork, Watauga County, North Carolina, into a musical family. His mother sang songs around the house while washing and hanging the clothes out on the line, and at night she sang to her children as they went to sleep. His father, a farmer and day-laborer, led the singing at the Baptist church they attended. They often sang from a shape-note book published in 1866, The Christian Harmony.
Doc took up playing the harmonica when he was six, stringing a piece of steel wire across the woodshed’s sliding door for bass accompaniment. When Doc was about eleven years old, his father made him a banjo using a cat’s skin for the head (discovering that groundhog hide didn’t have a good tone). Some say that banjo was the best thing Doc’s father ever did for him, but Doc would disagree. He says that the greatest gift he received from his dad was a job at the end of a crosscut saw when he was 14. “He made me know that just because I was blind, certainly didn’t mean I was helpless.”
Doc’s musical roots were family, church and neighbors. After the Watsons acquired a used wind-up Victrola and a stack of records , he listened to the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carolina Tar Heels, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. His parents sent him at age ten to Raleigh to school, where he was exposed to classical music and jazz. A friend taught Doc a few chords on the guitar, and he learned to play his first song: the Carter Family’s tune “When The Roses Bloom in Dixieland.”
“The banjo was something I really liked” Doc says, “but when the guitar came along, to me that was my first love in music.” Starting out, Doc used a thumb pick but soon turned to flat picking, which has become his signature style.
Doc and his brother began playing for local events. By age eighteen, Doc was playing with Paul Greer at a remote control radio show broadcast out of Lenoir, North Carolina. The announcer told “Arthel” Watson that his name was too hard to announce on the radio: he a shorter name that people could remember. A woman from the audience yelled out, “Call him Doc.” That has stayed with him.
Doc married Rosa Lee, daughter of a friend and an old-time fiddler name Gaither Carlton, in 1947. Their son, Eddy Merle (named after Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) was born in 1949. Their daughter, Nancy Ellen was born in 1951. To support his growing family, Doc tuned pianos.
In 1953 he got a job playing electric lead guitar for Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a country and western swing band. It was during his eight year stint with the Williams band that he began to flatpick fiddle tunes on his guitar for the square dance group at local dance halls, favorites like “Black Mountain Rag,” “Old Joe Clark,” “Sugarfoot Rag,” and “Billy In The Lowground.”
In 1961 Doc, Gaither, Tom Ashley, Fred Price and his neighbor Clint Howard performed in New York City and word soon spread of this talented group. They then were invited to perform at colleges, folk festivals and clubs. In time, Doc Watson was paired with Bill Monroe, thrilling audiences with hot fiddle tunes and duet singing.
Son Merle had shown no interest in guitar playing as a kid. But at about age 15, his mother showed him a few chords while Doc was on the road. When Doc returned and heard his son playing guitar for the first time, he said, “Son, you are going to California with me.” That was the first show Merle performed with his father, the Berkley Folk Festival in 1964.
Although Merle listened to his father play all his life, he developed a style all his own. He loved the blues, especially as played by Mississippi John Hurt and Jerry Ricks.
In 1972 Doc Watson was invited to record Will The Circle Be Unbroken with The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs, Merle Travis, Bashful Brother Oswald, Norman Blake, Jimmy Martin and others. Doc almost turned the invitation down because his son Merle was not invited. Merle told his father that his feelings were hurt but this opportunity would put their music out to audiences who had not heard them before.
After the release of Will The Circle Be Unbroken, Doc and Merle’s musical career picked up. They formed The Frosty Morn Band which played together a year or two. After that group disbanded Doc and Merle were joined by T. Michael Coleman on bass, a trio that toured world in 1974 and recorded 15 albums between 1973 and 1985.
In October 1985 Merle Watson was killed in a tractor accident. Merle was only 36.
Doc didn’t want to go on making music. He didn’t think he could go on without Merle by his side. Doc is quoted as saying he not only lost a son and a partner but, “the best friend I ever had in this world.”
Doc has said that on the night before the funeral he had decided to quit playing music but that night he had a dream. Though Doc has some light perception, he’s said that in this dream it was totally dark. “I could hardly stand it.” He felt like he was in quicksand up to his waist and he wasn’t going to make it out alive. “Then, suddenly this big old strong hand reached back and grabbed me by the hand and I heard this voice saying, ‘Come on dad, you can make it. Keep going.’”
Doc interprets this dream as the Good Lord telling him to continue on with his music.
I’d drive over an hour through snow and rain to see and hear Doc Watson. And did. And I would do the same to see and hear The Kruger Brothers. They are that good. The night of the Haiti benefit, they played for almost 600 guests who had braved the winter weather in western North Carolina on a cold, snowy February night.
After their performance for the standing-room-only crowd, Doc Watson, blind since he was one year old, was escorted on stage. He took his seat, center stage, in a straight back chair, and the Kruger Brothers came back out to introduce him. They told the audience that once they had heard Doc Watson perform, their dream was to perform with him — and that dream had come true
Accompanied by Charles Walsh, guitarist, vocalist and longtime friend, Doc opened his show with “Solid Gone.” Next, came a couple of blues tunes.
Let it rain, let it pour,
Let it rain a whole lot more,
’Cause I got them deep river blues.
Let the rain drive right on,
Let the waves sweep along,
’Cause I got them deep river blues.
Doc is a man of music not just a musician. It is his heart, soul and life. He told the audience he was so happy to be able to contribute in some way towards helping the people of Haiti. He also said that there on stage performing with the crowd, it was as if he were sitting in his living room and talking or singing to only one of us. There is a softness about him. He is sincere and humble,and a natural born storyteller.
Near the end of our concert Doc told the audience that he wanted to give testimony and hoped that no one would mind. He said that he was a born again Christian. He said he had been baptized when he was 14 years old but that it was the wrong kind of religion. He had listened to the wrong preaching and was baptized out of fear. He told us that four years ago he was listening to the song “Doctor Jesus” sand by Randy Travis and when the chorus came around the third time:
Doctor Jesus, Will you help me?
Make me better, make me whole .
Doctor Jesus, Lord, I need you
To mend my heart, and save my soul.
Doc Watson said that he prayed the prayer and became a born again Christian.
When the concert was over Doc remained on stage. Fan after fan came up to where Doc sat and said, “We love you Doc. We love you. We love you Doc. We love you.”
I asked Doc, “Doc, what is Rockabilly Music?” I climbed up on the stage to sit on the floor near him and he explained: “Goodness, goodness, Rockabilly Music is the music I heard back in the ‘40s, ‘50s and ‘60s.”
Those who missed the benefit for Haiti in North Wilkesboro may want to mark their calendars for MerleFest, Doc’s annual concert named in honor of his son. The festival, held every April-May at Wilkes Community College, features a vast array of folk, bluegrass, blues and old-time music. It’s one of the most popular acoustic music festivals in the world.