"Flash has no place in playing. It might impress the kids," says the venerable Doc Watson, "but it's great songs that endure."
At 83, the bluegrass legend knows about endurance. He's survived the ebbs and flows of pop-music fashion and the death of his best friend, son and musical partner, Merle Watson. He's triumphed over a disability that could've held him back, and has stayed on the road for more than 45 years since first gaining acclaim during the folk revival of the early '60s.
But Watson isn't a journeyman who is venerated simply for his longevity. The Deep Gap, N.C., native is a highly regarded national treasure, renowned for his influential flat-picking style; crisp, effortless leads; and a baritone as rich as Ghirardelli chocolate. Though blind, it's never been a crutch. (He's built a utility building from scratch and rewired his house by himself. Explain that to your wife.)
Watson's father was a big influence. Beyond constructing Doc's first banjo, he put his 14-year-old son on the other side of the crosscut saw to clear off farmland, and it gave Doc confidence and taught him the value of work. It wasn't so much that his dad was enlightened. "My brothers were in school, and he needed me," Watson recalls. "But I think he saw the effect it had on me."
Though the banjo was his first instrument, the guitar was his first love. Watson learned to play using a thumb pick, but was inspired to switch to a flat (or straight) pick after hearing Jimmie Rodgers. That's when Watson began forging his signature style. Then, while playing in a country swing band in the '50s, Watson began adapting fiddle tunes for the electric guitar.
Watson's big break came when he was asked to play on an American Folkways album in 1961. Musicologist Ralph Rinzler wanted Watson to play an acoustic instead of electric. Later, Rinzler convinced him to continue as a solo act and Watson transferred the techniques he developed for flat-picking fiddle leads on the electric guitar to the acoustic. He enjoyed positive notices for much of the early '60s.
In 1964, Merle Watson joined his dad on stage, inaugurating a formidable team. A fine player and singer in his own right, Merle's company lightened Doc's load. They rode out the lean times together, as well as a '70s resurgence spawned by their work on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. When Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985, it almost broke Doc, but he kept on, believing his son would want him to continue. (His son's legacy lives on through the annual North Carolina folk music festival, Merlefest.)
A humble man who brushes off compliments like a waiter does tablecloths, it took Doc a long time to feel comfortable on stage. Nearly 50 years.
"When I was 12 years old, a man who had no sense slapped me for being conceited in a contest at school, because I knew I was good," Watson recalls. "Then some years ago, I just thought, 'Why am I letting something that happened when I was 12 keep me from being myself?'"
But one's never too old to learn, and Watson's encyclopedic knowledge of Appalachian folk traditionals hasn't kept him from enjoying other genres of music. In concert, he's known to pull out cover versions of "House of the Rising Sun" or even the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." As Watson says, "a great song is a great song no matter when it's written, because it speaks to people.
"I was playing with [folk artist] Jean Ritchie, and I followed 'Shady Grove' with 'Nights in White Satin.' The second one got a standing ovation," Watson recalls with a chuckle. "Jean just threw her hands up in the air, and said, 'What do I know?'"