The regional loyalty and stylistic liberty of Doc Watson | Music Essay | Indy Week
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The regional loyalty and stylistic liberty of Doc Watson 

Earlier this week, I sat in a humid hospital room with most of my family. We were waiting on my mother to return from surgery, so we skipped from conversational topic to topic, hoping to pass the time with more anecdotes and less worry.

There were the requisite themes, like childhood mishaps and relatives with their inevitably questionable sanity. We talked about the weather and work, tattoos and the changing times. And after about two hours of sitting still, we moved on to music—namely to famous musicians who'd called North Carolina home. Dad had recently read about a fellow from the nearby town of Dunn; apparently, he'd poked holes into the speakers of his amplifiers and somehow been named Rolling Stone's 45th greatest guitarist of all time for doing so. That was Link Wray, I'd said.

My aunt, from the small city of Clinton, had recently heard tell of a revolutionary jazz pianist who'd been honored in Rocky Mount for his achievements. But she'd also heard he was from her county to the south, Sampson, so why hadn't they earned his historical marker? That was Thelonious Monk, I explained, whose dad had moved from Sampson County to Rocky Mount. Plus, Monk had made his career in Manhattan, anyway.

But no one needed an assist or introduction for the conversation's final player, Doc Watson. In fairness, at the age of 89, Watson had died six days before in Winston-Salem of surgical complications, a little less than a month before he was scheduled to play at the North Carolina Museum of Art, about a mile down the road from where we then sat. My dad had read his obituary in the newspaper and gleaned that Watson's guitar style was a transformative marvel; my aunt's friend had worked at Wilkes Community College and helped coordinate Merlefest, the massive bluegrass festival that overruns that western North Carolina campus each April to honor the memory of Watson's late son and closest collaborator, Merle. He'd died in a tractor accident.

Neither my father nor his sister is a music fanatic, but they are native North Carolinians. Neither ever met Watson, but as they spoke of him, they smiled with a distinctly local pride. For them, Doc Watson represented more than a guitarist. He toured the world. He won Grammys and the National Medal of Art. He founded one of the biggest convocations ever for his particular style. He'd overcome his blindness and become an icon. All told, he was a dignified emissary for the state, yet he'd never escaped to a bigger city or spotlight to make his career. Against most every star-making mold, he'd stayed within the same setting that shaped his sound.

Watson's familial and regional loyalty ran like thread through his entire career. From son Merle and folklorist David Holt to his longtime record label relationships and commitment to keeping Merlefest close to his birthplace near Deep Gap, about 30 miles to the west, Watson's collaborators became partners and allies, people and organizations who benefited from sticking close to his steadfast hands. After the Swiss trio The Kruger Brothers made their American debut at Merlefest in the late '90s, they became one of Watson's preferred backing bands when they subsequently moved to North Carolina. Though Watson's festival became more appealing to music-industry types and roots-music royalty during its two decades, there was never a more VIP seat than that reserved for Watson's wife, Rosa Lee, whose pine-back chair always sat stageside, white paper sign with her name on it affixed with black stage tape. During the five or so years I have stood stageside in Wilkesboro, no one has ever tried to steal that seat. She survives him.

"Lord, I'm lonesome," Watson sang on his 1966 masterpiece, Southbound, at the height of the folk renaissance with a then-teenage Merle taking lead guitar duties. "Long to see those hills that I come from."

None of this is to say that Watson was provincial or myopic in his music or his vision for it. To the contrary, obituaries that have pegged him as a bluegrass player or a simply stunning technician are right until the point that they're overly reductive. From the start of his recording career, Watson was a premier folk recombinant, a master harmonica player who eventually applied the banjo, guitar and his preternaturally wise voice to a repertoire of gospel, country, blues and, lastly, bluegrass.

By the time his reputation started to mount, he was in his 40s, and it seemed as if he'd already lived long enough to know that the borders of a sound were made for transgression, not slavish protection. He'd learned to play antediluvian fiddle tunes on a new electric guitar, and in the early '70s he served as an essential crossover conduit by picking and singing alongside Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin and Vassar Clements on Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's progressive roots-rock opus, Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

As much as any other cross-species effort, that record remains a sometimes awkward, always interesting road map to the sounds that would soon become commercial successes—punk bands playing plugged-in banjos instead of electric guitars, would-be rock lyricists out in front with acoustic guitars, would-be country singers backed by electrics and a crackling rhythm section.

That's the sort of spirit Merlefest grew to extol, too. Though Watson's several appearances during each year's four-day event indeed represented a patriarch re-upping the traditional-music inventory, they also served as a reminder that he was the fount of a festival that incubated new talent and fresh fusion. At Merlefest, young bands often found a foothold by doing something different, either aiming old sounds through surprising influences or injecting ancient tunes with new energy. When Merlefest welcomed Nitty Gritty Dirt Band back in 2003, Watson joined them onstage in a moment that felt less like a circle being unbroken than a continuous vector, still pointing ahead yet again.

The essay Watson wrote in 1966 to accompany Southbound actually reads like a humble manifesto for that hybrid and for decades of music that followed. Watson had spent the last six years earning acclaim as a folk and old-time ballads player, but he considered Southbound to be his mountain spin on country music. With his tender yodels and the steady backing bass of Russ Savakus, it was exactly that. He apologized to the fans who expected something else and promised that an album of familiar numbers was on its way. (That follow-up, Home Again!, is also an essential Watson outing, with his smooth-as-pine a cappella interpretation of "Down in the Valley to Pray" and his sweet, fleet take on "Froggie Went A-Courtin'.") But he also stood his artistic ground, explaining that the request of his youthful sideman and son, Merle, to "make another kind of record" prompted the departure. All music, he explained, was fair game, and he'd always heard it that way, from his childhood harmonica howls to his time playing rock 'n' roll and standards in regional VFW halls. When he first encountered the gypsy jazz of Django Reinhardt while studying in Raleigh at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, he was both confused and electrified: "I couldn't figure out what the devil he was doing, he went so fast on most of it," he later said, "but I loved it."

"As far back as I can remember, I've been completely fascinated by anything that had a musical sound," he wrote. "There were a couple of cow bells and a sheep bell lying around the house, and I remember how interested I was by the different tones of the bells, and I also recall how Mama would scold me for making so much noise."

A few months ago, I turned the key in my car's ignition only to be met by a blast of bluegrass. My girlfriend had been driving, and she'd scanned the satellite radio until she found the sound of strings on the woefully named station Bluegrass Junction.

I smiled with surprise. For the better part of a year, in fits and starts, I'd worked to introduce her to country music. Having grown up on a farm in rural North Carolina, I recognized it as the stuff of my childhood, from my dad's stories about nearby fiddler's conventions to the sleeker stuff my brother brought him on CDs from town. She'd grown up in the suburbs, though, with dyed hair and dreadlocks and multiple piercings, so country music and any of its corollaries weren't in her purview.

We'd started with the slick, more recent stuff, and we'd had some success with the introductions. She liked Randy Travis until she found out he'd written very few of his hits, and she liked George Strait. John Hiatt caught her ear in the car one day, and Kris Kristofferson was appropriately recognized as a master.

But bluegrass? I didn't think we'd come that far.

As it turns out, we hadn't. I'd forgotten to tell her about Doc Watson, but a co-worker who had worked on a documentary about the guitarist corrected my oversight. Upon hearing about her recent forays into country music, he told her Doc's fascinating story and played some of his tunes, too. She was hooked. She was soon the one pulling faded Vanguard LPs off our shelves.

Last Tuesday night, she looked at me in the same car and said—flatly, sadly, with a disappointment she'd never before used with me in relation to a celebrity's death—"Doc Watson is dead."

It felt personal, I suppose. He'd died nearly a month to the day before I planned to take her to see Doc for her first time, and once again, he'd served as her direct conduit for finding something new in the place she thought she'd known. His work was well done.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Good deal."

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