They call him a legend, a savior, an original and an inspiration. But mostly they just call him Doc.
Doc Watson, who will perform at 7:30 p.m. April 8 at Lake Junaluska’s Stuart Auditorium, along with Grammy-winning musician and storyteller David Holt, was born near Deep Gap, N.C. in 1923. A childhood eye-infection, which exacerbated a congenital vascular disorder near his eyes, took his site by the time he was a year old.
From then on Doc lived his life largely through sound. His family’s musical background — his mother often sung hymns and his father, a day laborer and farmer, sang in the local Baptist church and played the banjo — fostered a talent first shown on a harmonica when Doc was 5. By the time he was 11, he had learned how to play the banjo, an instrument that’s drum was made from the skin of his grandmother’s aging cat.
“I never knew the animal. I never petted it. I never heard it howl or anything that I remember of,” Doc is quoted as saying in a biography piece written for his annual music festival in Wilkesboro, Merlefest. “It just got old and decrepit and couldn’t eat and was blind, and it was miserable. Dad persuaded my brother to put it out of its misery. And he did it without making it suffer.”
It wasn’t until Doc was a young teenager, attending the North Carolina State School for the Blind, that he begin to realize that the sound on the old 78s he loved so much was the guitar. He learned a few chords from a friend and was fooling around on a borrowed guitar when his father promised that if Doc learned how to play a song by the time he got back from work, he would buy Doc a guitar.
Doc worked his way through “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” earning himself a $12 Stella from Sears and Roebuck.
“I just loved the guitar when it came along. I loved it,” Doc said in the Merlefest biography. “The banjo was something I really liked, but when the guitar came along, to me that was my first love in music.”
He learned tunes from the Carter Family and Monroe Brothers, and got his first gig at age 19 performing for a radio show. The show’s announcer felt the name “Arthel” was too stuffy and was looking for some sort of nickname when someone from the crowd shouted out, “Call him Doc.” Now, more than 60 years later, one might say it stuck.
“He’s probably my favorite traditional guitar player,” said Doug Trantham, a self-taught guitar, banjo and dulcimer player himself and resident of Maggie Valley. “He’s so clean and so right there with every note.”
Doc has a signature style of flat-picking — using a stiff guitar pick to play individual notes of a chord — that serves as a frame over which to lay the lyrics of traditional ballads, folk tunes, bluegrass, and old-time melodies. The style is common to modern music, as most guitar players from MTV to CMT use it, said Bob Gernandt, a musician, luthier (stringed instrument maker) and resident of Bryson City.
Like Doc’s flat-picking style serves as a framework for his lyrics, his music is built on the foundation of old-time greats such as Merle Travis — the namesake for Doc’s deceased son — and in turn has gone on to serve as a foundation for fusing together genres, making music that can cross cultural and generational gaps.
“It’s music everybody can relate to,” Gernandt said of Doc’s playing.
Brant Barnes, a potter at Riverwood Pottery in Dillsboro, is one of those “everybody” type people. Although exposed to music all his life, Barnes never learned to play an instrument himself.
“I can dance,” he jokes.
It was while in college that Barnes first heard Doc. One of Barnes’ professors had Doc’s first recorded album. The music struck a chord.
“And the next thing I knew I had the next album and the next album and the next album,” Barnes said.
One of Doc’s appeals is his voice — something fans each in turn note for its signature timbre. Accomplished musician and Haywood County guitar and banjo teacher Larry Watson remembers watching Doc on television.
“I’d see Doc on Saturdays on TV, he’d be on the Lester Flat and Earl Scruggs show,” Watson said. “It was just all day back then.”
While Watson was taken with Doc’s musicianship, there was something more to it.
“I was equally if not more taken with the quality of his voice that just kind of fit that,” Watson said of Doc’s songs. A dozen different singers could come along and each do their version of “The Tennessee Stud,” but Doc was unparalleled.
“Then Doc Watson can sing it one time and it’s like you never heard it,” Watson said.
“His voice just speaks of the ages,” Barnes gushed above the din of his pottery store customers.
Barnes borrows from Doc’s stripped down sense of simplicity, in a way attempting to echo Doc’s musicality in his artwork.
“As a craftsman he has a vision, and he’s remained true to that. That vision, it’s Americana,” Barnes said. “In my own work I also see that I have stayed true to where I started.”
Barnes first saw Doc live in 1976 amidst what would be a decade of yearly Doc releases from 1971’s Doc Watson on Stage and Ballads from Deep Gap to 1981’s Red Rocking Chair. The University of Georgia at Athens put on a big yard party, and after a day of revelry the crowd was less than subdued.
Doc took the stage, cautioning listeners that if they didn’t settle down and listen to the music, he was out of there. Sure enough, Doc kept his word.
“So the first time I get to see him he plays two songs and walks off the stage,” Barnes said.
Barnes’ story may sound familiar to Doc fans. The legendary musician is known for his reverence for the stage and particular attention to detail. He may walk out, or he may just wait to start.
“One of the things I actually learned to some extent from Doc Watson – most of us hate amplification anyway, and I think a lot of people tend not to spend a lot of time working with that,” Trantham said. “He won’t start until the sound is right, and that’s exactly what he needs to do.”
While it may all sound very rock star, fans say his insistence on standards stems from inherently different values.
“I think the thing about Doc that appeals to me is that genuine, southern hospitality, mountain kind of homey personality,” Gernandt said.
“There’s so much honesty in his performance,” Watson agreed.
Doc’s playing is filled with emotion, and that emotion is poured out into the crowd. Such energy is evident at his annual festival in Wilkesboro, Merlefest.
The festival originates back to 1986, a year after Doc’s son, Merle, was killed in a tractor accident. Merle had become his father’s touring partner and an accomplished slide guitar player who was earning his own accolades as a musician. Doc’s friends recommended a concert as a fund-raising event to help create a memorial garden. In 1988, Doc and friends — who also happened to be some of the country’s best musicians — played to a crowd of 4,000 from the back of two flatbed trucks.
Today the festival stretches across three days, this year from April 27-30, and features more than 100 musicians including Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris, Robert Earl Keen, Nickel Creek, Pete Seeger and Gillian Welch.
Merlefest gave Barnes a once-in-a-lifetime Doc experience when he was able to share his work as an artist.
“Two years ago he came by my booth and bought a piece of pottery from me. It was for his wife,” Barnes said.
Doc’s wife liked the piece so much she came back and bought another to give as a gift.
“Oh talk about a highlight, I couldn’t walk straight for two days. My hips were swagging, my shoulders were swagging,” Barnes said.
Barnes isn’t the only one with a favorite Doc moment. Trantham got to see him play at a little barbeque restaurant/juke joint in Hickory.
“I sat there in absolute awe,” Trantham said.
And Don Pedi, a dulcimer player and on air host of WCQS’s Close to Home radio show, although never having met Doc, remembers first hearing him at the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s.
“He was a major inspiration to me about playing the fiddle tunes on instruments other than the fiddle,” Pedi said, citing the fiddle’s role in traditional music before other stringed instruments became so popular. “If it wasn’t for Doc, I probably wouldn’t have gone in that direction so much.”
Pedi was living near Boston when he picked up the lap dulcimer – a distinctly Appalachian instrument. He’d gone to a see a concert at the Unicorn Coffee House, but didn’t have his schedule straight and had missed the musician he’d gone to see by a day. He decided to stay anyway and listen to Richard and Mimi Farina. Richard played a dulcimer and with only a dozen or so people in the crowd Pedi got a chance to talk to him.
“When I saw the dulcimer it was just instant,” Pedi said.
In 1968, a friend let Pedi borrow a dulcimer he’d brought home. Six years later, Pedi had moved to North Carolina and taken up playing with local traditional fiddlers.
Pedi credits Doc with introducing a generation to traditional mountain music. Folk music was really big in the 1960s, and while Doc didn’t have hits on the radio, the groups he influenced — like Lovin’ Spoonful — did.
“Back then it was all tied with a changing perception of who you could be,” Pedi said. “People were openly protesting the Vietnam War, there was a lot of coming of age of the nation.”
People listening to all types of music and musicians like Doc helped make mountain music a respected art form.
“He took his traditional music that he grew up with and mountain music and elevated it up to a whole other level in terms of the quality of what he did,” Trantham said. “It’s so good it can be appreciated by anyone.”