For more than three decades, Arthel “Doc” Watson has been America’s most renowned and influential folk guitar stylist. Now about to turn 70, he’s mostly retired, staying off the road except for a half dozen dates a year. In a series of interviews last year, Watson reflected on his bittersweet career, shedding light on the development of his unique style and on the legacy of his late son, Merle, his performing partner for many years.
At any given Doc Watson performance, one will see and hear not only a guitar player of the finest caliber, but also an intelligent, witty, down-to-earth gentleman who loves to share the music of his heart and home. Watson is an extraordinary entertainer who never fails to capture the admiration and affection of his audience. His concerts are filled with hot flatpicking tunes, slow romantic ballads, gutsy blues numbers, and delicately fingerpicked melodies. Each song is sung with unmatched clarity, each tune played with a dexterity that has placed Doc Watson’s name in the music history books.
Watson did not set out to become a famous musician. In fact, if given his druthers, he never would have struck out on the road to make a living as a performer. While music would have been a part of his life no matter what, carpentry, electrical work, mechanics, or even engineering would have been Watson’s calling of choice . . . if given that choice. But a childhood infection took Watson’s vision by the time he was one year old.
Born into a musical family on March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc Watson refers to his blindness only as a hindrance, not as a disability. But he adds quietly that he regrets not being able to see the smiles on the faces of his loved ones.
It’s those loved ones who instilled in Watson the traditional folk music of his native region. As Watson puts it, “I cut my teeth on it. Mother used to sing a few of the old ballads, and Dad was a singing leader in the little church from the time I can remember. He played a bit of oldtime banjo. I had a brother that could pick some old-time banjo, and there were folks that lived around there that played a bunch of the old-time music. I got a good bit of my repertoire first-hand from some of the old-timers—fiddle tunes, ballads. But a lot of it came from early 78 [rpm] recordings and early radio.”
Watson’s father, General Dixon Watson, provided his first instruments. “My very first instrument was a little harmonica,” he recalls. “It was like the one I was playing ‘Milk Cow Blues’ on out there [at the concert that evening]—the same type. I got one every Christmas as far back as I can remember. And sometimes if I was a good boy, I got one for my birthday, because I usually wore them out pretty quick as a kid or lost them somewhere!
“The first stringed instrument I had was a little homemade banjo that Dad made for me when I was 11. Then my first guitar came along when I was about 13. Though it was my second [stringed instrument], it was my first love as an instrument.”
Watson recalls his earliest playing attempts. “Dad showed me a few tunes on the old five-string. It was a fretless, and it was very hard to play true notes on. Then the original Carter Family—Sarah and Maybelle—were the first guitar influence. The first thing I learned was the old Carter Family style, using a thumbpick and a strum with the fingers. Maybelle Carter played the lead on the bass strings with her thumb and did the rhythmic strum with her fingers. Then Jimmie Rodgers came right along; that good full-strum sound he played with a thumb lead and a finger strum.”
Watson continues, “Then I got into flatpicking. I ordered a guitar from Sears and Roebuck, and there came a book with it with different little songs in there that you could flatpick. It showed the old-time jazz guitarist Nick Lucas; it showed how he held his pick. My youngest brother, David, showed me how Lucas held his pick, and that’s how I learned to hold mine. But I figured out that if you’re going to play good flatpicking, you have to learn an even up-and-down stroke on the strings. That’s the first step in learning. But I never tried to do too much lead with the flatpick until I began to hear Hank Garland and Grady Martin. Hank was a jazz guitar player, but in the early days he played some country music up in Nashville with Red Foley and different people. I heard them play fiddle tunes and I thought, ‘By golly, if they can do that, I can.’
“I had to put in a little work on it. I learned a few things during the square dance and rockabilly days in the ’50s. Then, when I switched back over to the flattop in the early ’60s during the folk scare, as Michael [Coleman] calls it, I began to really work hard on the fiddle tunes, ’cause I found out people like ’em!”
Watson’s earliest influences were wide and varied, mainly introduced by the family’s “graphophone,” as they called their windup Victrola. He recalls his early experiences with blues: “There was a record or two by [Mississippi] John Hurt, Furry Lewis, some of the other blues artists. I think we had one with Skip James and the Memphis Jug Stompers. The blues were there; it was part of the background. And when Merle started on the road with me, he loved the blues, I think better than I did. We just naturally incorporated blues in the repertoire as we went along. It became a very big part of our sets. Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee furthered the cause as far as Merle and I were concerned. We learned a lot of songs from those boys. They were certainly a fine team.”
Not only did Watson come from a musical background, but he married into another family of music when he wed Rosa Lee Carlton, whose father, Gaither Carlton, was a fiddler with whom Watson played regional hymns and ballads. Doc and Rosa Lee Watson had two children, Eddie Merle, named after guitar great Merle Travis, and Nancy Ellen. [Editor’s note: In 2020, an album of early ’60s recordings of Doc and Gaither Carlton was released.]
Watson had supported his family with his music since the early ’50s, playing in a country dance band on an electric Gibson Les Paul. All the while he continued to play the traditional acoustic music of his home region with Tom “Clarence” Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Price.
It was while performing with Ashley, Howard, and Price at Union Grove, North Carolina, in 1960 that the now-legendary meeting of folklorist Ralph Rinzler and Doc Watson took place. Rinzler’s discovery of Watson led to Watson touring the coffeehouse circuit in the Northeast and eventually taking him to the stage of the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, where he was embraced enthusiastically by the folk community, young and old. That appearance and a historic concert with the father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, at Town Hall in New York City in 1964 paved the way for Watson’s first recording contract.
That same year marked what was to be another momentous occasion. Upon returning home from a tour, Watson found that his son, Merle, had taken up the guitar. Rosa Lee had taught Merle his first chords, and Merle, as Watson says, “just took it and went with it.
“The first time Merle ever went to a festival with me was the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964. He was 15. When he went on the stage with me, he had been pickin’ the guitar three months, and he played backup guitar for me on the whole set. He met John Hurt on that trip and began to do a bunch of fingerstyle things, then things of his own notion, and picked up a couple of John’s tunes. I don’t remember how long it was before he began to really work on flatpicking, but he did it the way he thought it ought to be. If you’ve noticed his flatpicking style, it was a little different from mine. I taught him melodies of things that I’d want him to learn, but he’d get off in a corner and do it the way he wanted to; tunes like ‘Salt Creek’ or ‘Nancy Rowland,’ some of those old tunes.”
From a listener’s point of view, it was easy to distinguish which Watson was picking a particular break without actually seeing who it was, because the younger Watson so quickly developed his own distinctive sound.
In talking about his own playing, Watson often refers to “Doc style.” But one would be hard-pressed to place a precise definition on his guitar technique. “Doc style” is not just a picking method; it’s also his genuine, warm, down-home personality and his delivery. As Watson says, “Stage presence is everything, something some people are just lucky enough to be born with.”
Continuing about his style, Watson emphasizes, “As long as I’ve been picking professionally, I’ve been putting my own notions into the music. Whatever tune I play, I play the way I play it. I may have attempted to copy a few things when I first learned them, but very few things. I’ve purposely tried my best to copy every lick Smitty played on the early Ernest Tubb recordings. [Fay “Smitty” Smith was Tubb’s first electric lead player.] He was a jazz guitar player turned country. God, I loved his guitar picking! Whew, did I ever! Smitty didn’t do anything real fancy, they were just pretty little ripply licks, little triplets thrown in, a lot of them were just little pull-off rolls.”
Watson mentions a few other guitar inspirations. “For years, Chet [Atkins] was my idol. I finally figured out that I can’t play three-finger style or four-finger style like he does—literally, physically can’t do it. I don’t have the span, the reach that he has on the neck of the guitar. But I still love to hear the man play. Merle Travis, oh, God, I loved his music. The Delmore Brothers, um-um! I guess I liked every guitar player that I listened to, but there’s some at the top of the list, like Chet, Merle, Smitty, Hank Garland. I like George Benson pretty much. And my son, Merle, of course. He was the best slide player I ever heard in my life—I mean, Duane Allman and all the rest of them thrown in. Merle was the fastest, played the truest notes. And he was no slouch fingerstyle guitar player either. And Merle, as you noticed on the Remembering Merle CD, could flatpick when he wanted to.
“What impressed me the most about Merle’s guitar playing was the tasteful style that he had developed and his ability to learn very quickly,” Watson adds. “He was a much faster learner than I ever was. Those are the things that impressed me so much. He didn’t have to play 900 notes to make you like what he did,” he says, laughing, “if you’ll pardon a good healthy figure there!”
Merle Watson had a quiet but very visible presence. Onstage, the younger Watson would listen intently to the notes around him and respond with his own. He would often pick with his eyes closed and his head cocked down toward his guitar to hear better and concentrate on the crystal-clear notes he was picking. As he slid out of a break, a beautiful, satisfied smile would come across his face.
His father’s performing and business partner for more than 20 years, Merle Watson played guitar, banjo, and slide guitar alongside his dad and produced most of their recordings. He recorded his first album with his father a mere eight months after strumming his first chord. They went on to record more than 20 albums together, winning four Grammy awards along the way. (Doc has since won two more.) Merle’s expertise on the guitar not only equaled that of the elder Watson, many in the industry considered Merle to be an even finer picker. Merle’s life ended tragically in a tractor accident at his farm on October 23, 1985.
“Merle loved music,” Watson relates quietly. “He was an entertainer. Merle’s stage presence . . . well, just looking at Merle and that smile and knowing he was up there was half his presentation, and his music was the other half. I always thought that from what people said; I couldn’t see that, of course. He’d flash that smile and you knew he was up there!”
Doc Watson died on May 29, 2012, at 89.
Five Doc Watson albums worth checking out: The Best of Doc Watson, 1964-68; Never the Same Way Once (Doc and Merle live), Doc & Merle Watson’s Guitar Album; Trouble in Mind: The Doc Watson Country Blues Collection; Foundation: The Doc Watson Guitar Instrumental Collection.
This article originally appeared in the March/April 1993 issue of Acoustic Guitar magazine and was reprinted in the September/October 2020 issue.