Merle Watson has a strong set of credentials for a young musician. Besides being the 24-year-old son of the preeminent guitar picker, Doc Watson, Merle is also his father’s extremely competent accompanist on banjo and second guitar. He was named after Merle Travis, the country whiz from whom Doc learned his chops. His great-great-grandmother knew Tom Dula, and the original “Tom Dooley” was a family heirloom. Clarence Ashley, the late patriarch of old-timey music, was his neighbor, and Earl Scruggs drops in often for lunch at the Watson’s Deep Gap, North Carolina, home.
And Merle Watson says he doesn’t like country music.
“Naw,” Merle said matter-of-factly during an interview with his illustrious father, “I don’t especially like country music too much.”
Doc almost hung his head, and you could tell that the blind guitarist-singer wasn’t too pleased with the answer.
Merle worried with his walrus mustache with one hand and rearranged his abundant thatch of dark hair with the other. Then he dropped another bombshell: “My favorite kind of music, now, it’d have to be the Allman Brothers. Blues-rock.”
Doc sipped his coffee and looked unconcerned.
Merle continued: “As soon as my construction business is doin’ well enough, I’m gonna quit playin’ professionally and work at my business fulltime.” Sudden silence. Merle looked around and decided that it was time to let his father talk again.
“Well,” Doc said in his ringing baritone, “this tall drink o’ water sittin’ beside me here has got me off on some of the blues people. Bill Withers, man, that man can sing.”
With that, the interview was Doc’s again. He was pausing in the midst of a nationwide tour that was an outgrowth of his second “discovery,” precipitated by the country-western boom of the Seventies. Master of half-a-dozen styles of American music, slave of none, Arthel “Doc” Watson was first “discovered” accidentally during the folk craze of the Sixties.
In 1960, he was 37 and playing electric guitar in a country swing dance band in his native North Carolina when folklorist Ralph Rinzler went south to locate Clarence Ashley. His big find was Ashley’s neighbor, Doc Watson.
“The way I got started professionally in music,” Watson said, “a fellow, Ralph Rinzler, persuaded me, over my better judgment, that I had something to offer the public in the way of entertainment. So I got out there and tried. In ’62 I made my first professional trip as a musician. I went with the Clarence Ashley group to Los Angeles and worked the Ash Grove for two weeks. That kinda launched me into it.”
He was soon a sensation at Gerde’s Folk City and Town Hall and then became a folk pillar with his appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival. There followed a string of albums and tours, but, as folkie consciousness dwindled, so did his national popularity. As the years went by, his basic repertoire – sides of mountain music served up with dashes of urban-folk-cum-Tom Paxton and popular C&W – changed little, although his style gained what has since been described as an “authoritative delivery.”
When the C&W revival rolled around, Watson was there and was soon called upon. In 1971, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band recorded their epochal Will the Circle Be Unbroken album with musical pioneers Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis. And Doc Watson.
His performances there – especially “Tennessee Stud” and “Black Mountain Rag,” which he first heard “over radio station WCYB from Bristol, when the Stanley Brothers’ fiddler, Leslie Keith, played it” – won him an entire new set of young and not-so-young fans.
Watson is the last to claim that he is strictly a traditional singer: “Country music has changed and I guess I’ve changed with it. Although I’ve never forgotten about the old music, I consider myself privileged that I grew up in a part of the country where we still had the old music. I guess my country style has developed from listening to a lot of music over the years, not all of it country. While I was even in school, I was exposed to the classical music and that may have influenced a tiny bit of phrasing here and there. But all music I do, I learned by ear. I don’t know but half a thimbleful about theory.”
Doc Watson and Merle Travis first met at that Circle session, and Doc considered it a “high point of my career” to meet the man from whose recordings he had learned much of his guitar technique. “I had about three influences,” Watson said, “and they were the Delmore Brothers, Jimmie Rodgers and Merle Travis. Like Chet Atkins, I guess, Merle was my idol. I dearly love to hear that man pick.”
The blind guitarist is still self-disparaging. His attitude throughout the interview is aw-shucks-I’m-just-another-git-tar-picker. “I didn’t seriously start learning about git-tar,” he said, Merle listening solemnly, “until I was about 18 or 19. When I was 13 I got my first guitar. I was foolin’ around with a borrowed git-tar one mornin’ when my dad said, ‘If you’ll learn a tune on that thang, son, by the time I get back from work this evenin’, Saturday we’ll go to town and see if we can find you one.’ Well now, I cheated a little I guess. I had already learned a few chords and by the time he came home, I could play a Carter Family lead on that thang, ‘When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland.’
“I’ll tell you a story about my first real instrument, my banjo, although I had a new harmonica every year. But my banjo – Dad was splittin’ stove wood and kindlin’ in the yard and I was carryin’ Momma a box of stove wood when my brother Linny – he lives over in Russell, Louisiana, now – came up through the yard with a sack, and Dad said, ‘What in the world you got in that sack, son?’ He said, ‘Well, this’s that pore old cat of granny’s that she wants me to put it out of its misery. It’s got to where it can’t eat; it just lays around and suffers.’ Dad said, ‘Well, make sure it don’t suffer.’ He turned around to me and said, ‘I’ll tell you what. If you boys’ll skin that cat, I’ll make you a banjo head out of it.’ And I said, ‘Whoever heared tell of a cat-hide for a banjo?’ He said, ‘Well, they got one in the Sears-Roebuck catalog. I believe I can make one.’
“It took me and Linny two days to wash the smell off our hands. But that banjo head was almost transparent. It did make the finest banjo head you ever saw.”
Merle and Doc laughed and got up: They wanted some rest before the night’s performance. They had just driven in from San Francisco, and Dayton was the next stop after Austin.
(Several weeks later Doc would be back in Boone, North Carolina, to receive an honorary Doctor of Folk Arts degree and deliver a commencement address at Appalachian State University.)
* * *
There’s a new audience standing ass-to-elbow in the tiny folk club. The city council just announced that Doc will be presented the key to the city. (“Useless as tits on a bull,” a wag in the crowd suggests.) Doc emerged, haltingly, from the dressing room and Merle led him up to the stage. This young folkie audience was already giving him an ovation, just on sight.
He and Merle settled onstage and Doc wasted no time: “Merle,” he said in that intimate club voice, “let’s get it cranked off here with a little of that ‘Roll in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.'”
Doc seesawed into a harp intro and then rolled a guitar opener and the crowd was cheering.
Merle was stone-faced. He might have been thinking of a construction company or something else he’d rather be doing. Doc was beaming. You could feel it even with your eyes closed: His heart was in it.