With the passing of Arthel “Doc” Watson, in Winston-Salem., North Carolina on May 29th at the age of 89, America has lost a master of acoustic folk and country guitar – a blind flat-picking virtuoso of astonishing velocity, clean precision and earthy melodic comfort. But in my hometown, Philadelphia, and especially at the Main Point, a fabled coffeehouse in the suburb of Bryn Mawr, Watson was even more than that. He was a warm, gracious and reliable star.
Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923 and discovered there in 1960 by folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle, on the advice of local banjo-playing legend Clarence Ashley, Watson was a still-recent folk-revival sensation when he first appeared at the Main Point, as a headliner, in May 1965, a year after the club opened and Vanguard Records issued his major-label studio debut, Doc Watson. He played at the Main Point so often in the late Sixties and Seventies that Watson could have listed it as a business address on his tax returns. Some of his opening acts there would pass him in celebrity and hits: a young Jim Croce, the Philly-born picker and session ace David Bromberg and the pre-“American Pie” Don McLean.
But Watson was a pioneering instrumentalist – liberating the guitar from its supporting rhythmic role in country rags and mountain balladry with a jazzman’s drive, improvising on complex fiddle and banjo motifs like a Blue Ridge Django Reinhardt – who always took the Main Point stage like a neighbor from the next valley over, delighted to be passing through. He conversed with the crowd in a gently crusted drawl and sang fireside standards such as “Deep River Blues” and “Tennessee Stud” with renewing vigor – a dynamic reminder of a rough dynamic America that was, at the time, not that distant.
The First Alternative-Country Music
Watson’s studio and live recordings for Vanguard in the Sixties and early Seventies were mostly spare natural beauties that left a mark on young folk-influenced rockers such as the Grateful Dead’s Jerry Garcia. Those albums were also charged with ambition and catholic energy, from the start. Watson’s performances at the 1964 Newport Folk Festival on Treasures Untold (Vanguard), a 1991 compilation, include four tracks with future Byrds guitarist Clarence White. A 1968 album, Doc Watson in Nashville: Good Deal!, featured Doc and his son Merle, a prodigiously gifted rhythm guitarist, playing old favorites (“Shady Grove,” “Memphis Blues”) with top Nashville cats including pianist Floyd Cramer and guitarist Grady Martin, a year before Bob Dylan cut Nashville Skyline. It was not a giant leap – Merle (who died in 1985) was named after one of Doc’s favorite country finger-pickers, Merle Travis.
But I have a special fondness for Watson’s often overlooked Seventies recordings, especially the 1974 LP, Two Days in November (Poppy) – named after the amount of time it took Doc and Merle to make it – and 1977’s Louisiana-flavored Lonesome Road (United Artists). Watson also explored his roots and the roads beyond with a brief but profound mainstream impact. He contributed to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s triple-LP, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, an unprecedented supersession of country-rock long hairs and Grand Ole Opry regulars, then bound his own widespread source materials – blues, gospel, bluegrass, even Southern-flavored rock – into a 1975 double album, Memories (United Artists).
“Our arrangement,” Merle Watson wrote in that record’s liner notes about a version of Barbecue Bob’s “You Don’t Know My Blues,” “shows the Allman Brothers’ influence in our blues.” There may be no more prophetic definition of what we now routinely call alternative-country music. Memories would, notably, be Doc’s only album under his own name to make the Billboard album chart. It only made it to Number 193. It is still his most worldly triumph.
Watson continued to record and perform well into this century, leaving an imprint, legacy and discography that will never stop reverberating in American music and the stories we tell with it. He came to us almost by accident – a friend’s recommendation – and, at his death, Watson still lived in the area where he was born and musically formed. It was home. But he always left a piece of it with us – on records, at festivals, on those nights at the Main Point – as he was passing through, on the way back.