Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Doc Watson

There's no mystery in my mind as to who was the greatest country and traditional guitarist over the past fifty years. He died yesterday at the age of 89.

Doc Watson made the wooden box with strings sound like no other before him. He could do it all.

He first toured with his son Merle in the '70s and early '80s. Merle was killed in a tragic tractor accident in 1985 and a grieving Doc curtailed all his touring for a while. When he resumed touring he hired an accompanist he had met and worked with before Merle's death, Jack Lawrence. Lawrence, a superb guitarist in his own right toured with Doc for the next two decades.

My wife Joyce and I saw him (and Lawrence) in the mid '90s when he came to the Ryman for a concert. It was the most memorable concert experience of my life, something I'll never forget. I was mesmerized by his abilities. His fingers seemed to be moving at an impossible speed and the sound was incredible. Doc was a gentle man, strong, but humble, and that came through in his comments to the audience between songs. He was a guy you instantly liked.

He was from a place back in the North Carolina mountains called Deep Gap, nearby the town of Boone. They are rightly proud of their world famous native son and had a statue of Doc created to show their pride and respect for his talents.

He first received recognition as a traditionalist with his phenomenal flat picking renditions of mountain fiddle tunes like "Black Mountain Rag." This video of the tune blows me away (that's Jack Lawrence with him). The fingers of both men are absolutely flying and then at the end they kick it up to warp speed. Doc has explained that it was back in the late '50s when he first learned to pick the tune. Interesting to note that he learned it first on a Les Paul electric when he was playing in a rock and roll band!

Doc also recorded some of the contemporary "folk" singers' material from the '60s; this one is "I Can't But Wonder Where I'm Bound" by Tom Paxton.

And here's Doc doing his version of Jimmy Rodgers' "Peach Pickin' Time in Georgia." That's Jack Lawrence on the first run and Doc saves his magic until the second.

Finally, here's Doc with his grandson Richard as they perform the song that seems to get rediscovered with every generation, "House of the Rising Sun."

Rest in peace, Doc Watson. 1923 - 2012.

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