The fiddler didn’t always show up. This was a problem, back in the time of country swing bands, because the fiddle was supple enough to carry the melody, and nimble enough to play the fast licks when the music really got going. But back in 1953, Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen didn’t have a reliable fiddle player. What they did have was a blind guitar player named Doc Watson.
Doc lost his sight to an eye infection before he was a year old. But his mama and daddy taught him to fend for himself at their farm in the North Carolina mountains. Doc could swing a hammer and pull a crosscut saw about as good as anybody else in the family. But what he really loved was music. He learned to play harmonica, then a homemade banjo, but what he loved the most was his $12 guitar out of the Sears Roebuck catalog.
Before long he was playing at a cab stand in Lenoir for tips, then in some local bands. He played the normal guitar style for the time – bass notes with his thumb and chords with his fingers. In country and bluegrass, back then, the guitar played strictly rhythm. The fiddle or banjo or mandolin played lead. But Doc started practicing those intricate lead runs on guitar.
It’s hard to play an acoustic guitar fast – the strings are higher off the neck than on an electric, and they make a nasty buzz if you don’t press down in just the right place. Playing a fiddle run on guitar seemed so difficult that nobody even tried.
Doc Watson tried, and he did it.
And when he did, he transformed country music; created a whole new style of bluegrass; and started drawing the line that (once you ran it through the great Les Paul) went straight toward guitar gods like Eddie Van Halen.
Doc Watson died Tuesday at 89. Yeah, he was a big deal.
He was 40 years old before he got his big national break at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. He never did sell a ton of records, although he played on the groundbreaking “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” record in 1972. In concert he would often defer to his sidemen. Between songs he’d tell a little story about where he first ran across a tune, or he’d tell a dry joke, or he’d talk about his dear sweet Rosa Lee. They had been married since 1947.
Most of us, down in this part of the world, knew him from the annual Merlefest weekend in Wilkesboro, N.C. Merle was Doc’s son, a great picker himself. He died in 1985 in a tractor accident. Doc was so torn up he thought about retiring. Instead he went back on the road, and in ’88 he started Merlefest. Now 70,000 people come for four days every April. The greats in bluegrass and country music all play there. But you’ll also get Elvis Costello, or Robert Plant, or a jam band like Donna the Buffalo. One year we fell in love with a group called the Gospel Jubilators. Another year we danced to a klezmer band.
The first year I went, I stood off to the side of the stage on Saturday night and watched Doc play. He was already in his 70s then, and the April nights can get cold up there in the foothills. You could see his breath when he chatted between songs. It must’ve been hard on an old man’s hands. But then he played “Summertime.”
You might know “Summertime” from the George Gershwin opera “Porgy and Bess.” But when Doc sings it in that flat lonesome-train voice, it sounds like it came straight from somewhere in the Blue Ridge. This was his other great gift. He loved every type of music and he played them all his way. In the course of a set you might hear “Columbus Stockade Blues” next to “Amazing Grace” next to “Nights in White Satin.”
These days we use the term Americana to label a brand of music that’s mostly white, often acoustic, but draws from blues and rock and country and gospel and soul. That label covers everybody from Wilco and the Avett Brothers to Rosanne Cash and Alison Krauss. Americana contains multitudes. Doc Watson basically invented Americana – not just by how he played the songs, but by the songs he chose to play.
You’d hear every so often of him stopping in for a few songs at a catfish place he liked near his home in Deep Gap. He still toured a little bit, mostly theaters not far from home, but occasionally a show in New York. And there was always Merlefest. A month ago, on its 25th anniversary, he played six sets in four days.
There are a lot of great musicians in the world. There aren’t many who made other musicians think about music in a different way. And of that small group, I doubt there were any more humble than Doc Watson.
His real first name was Arthel. The story goes that he was doing a live show on the radio one night, the announcer said Arthel needed a nickname, and somebody in the audience shouted “Doc!” — as in Doctor Watson, Sherlock Holmes’ sidekick.
The name stuck, but it was never quite right. Doc Watson was nobody’s sidekick. He was the genius who solved the mysteries. Because of him, it’s easier for us to see how all different kinds of music fit together. And because of him, the Country Gentlemen didn’t need a fiddle player.