Volume II, Issue IV Winter 2003

Doc Watson: One proud hillbilly

This article originally published in The Orange County Weekly

Doc WatsonBehold ye, milk-fed city-slickers, the imperial countenance of old-timey songster Doc Watson: craggy, stony, lined and timeworn; baked like hardtack; magnificently primal yet full of tacit mountain wisdom. Faces like this come to us in modern times only from half-forgotten dreams, dimly recalled from grainy movies we may or may not have actually experienced as children.

Consider the connotations of the Watson Visage; an exotic, startling relic of the 19th Century; a dog-eared, sepia-toned photograph; a fusty museum exhibit; a handsome slab of antique furniture, scarred and dulled with age but somehow more elegant, more haunting, more beautiful for the wear. They just don't make mugs like this anymore, nossir, they haven't in more than a century and they never will again, so grok this shit while you can, Skippy. Lick Doc Watson's picture. Rub yourself on it. Do this while listening to Doc Watson sing and play the guitar, an experience to transport you back to a harsher but finer time; to stir the somnolent soul and soothe over-stimulated senses. The effect will be something akin to absorbing a couple dozen volumes of American history by osmosis, and you shall emerge a better person.

Arthel "Doc" Watson was compelled by the fates to appear as he does, all stony and grim and rubbable, there was simply no other way for him. The man grew up during the 1920s in the hills of a place called Deep Gap, North Carolina, on a farmhouse built by his grandpa, playing a banjo made out of his grandma's cat. Watson seems sheepish when discussing the cat-banjo these days, but such apparent apocrypha looms large in his legend and hence bears authentication.

"That poor old cat lived about 20 years and it got into such a shape it couldn't eat, couldn't walk, couldn't see," Watson explains with an impatient p'shaw. "So she hired my older brother to put it out of its misery. My dad said, 'If you boys skin that cat, I'll make you a banjo head out of it.' Well, that old cat needed to be put to sleep and my brother Lenny knew how to do it without putting it through any pain. Killed it instantly. That thing made a beautiful banjo head when it was brand new; you could just about read the newspaper through it."

Doc, however, wasn't reading any newspapers through any household pet-hides, as he was struck blind before he could even walk. Like many country boys of his vintage so afflicted, Watson gravitated toward the music that seemed to flow through the hills as naturally as the birds piped, the brooks gibbered and the cool breeze wafted. His parents, Annie and General Watson, sang and played traditional Americana and gospel around the hearth, and the sound of contemporary 78 RPM records filled the house every day.

Doc Watson in performance "We had one of those old wind-up Victrolas," he recalls. "There was some old-time blues things in the house – Skip James, Furry Lewis, Cannon's Jug Stompers and those people. Music crosses a lot of cultural bridges. Most people didn't realize it, but people up in the mountain here always liked the blues. Then we had Gid Tanner & the Skillet Lickers, the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers, folks like that."

Li'l Arthel dutifully absorbed it all, learning to play several instruments but eventually settling on the guitar as his axe of choice, flat-picking like a proper sumbitch, making those six strings chime and percolate like three musicians at once, singing naturally purty as an Appalachian twilight. It wasn't until Watson grew into middle age that he became a working musician, though, gigging for seven years with a local bandleader named Jack Williams.

By the dawn of the '60s, the folk revival was in full bloom and many of the artists whose records Watson grew up with were being rediscovered, suddenly plucked from remote rural cabins to perform for thousands of awestruck honky suburbanites at festivals throughout the world. Doc, no one's durn fool, smelled opportunity knocking and went for the gusto. Already pushing 40, already the possessor of a face to give Ned Beatty sweating nightmares, already a musician whose sound and repertoire harkened deep back into the prior century, Doc became an instant cause célèbre in the folk revival world, where the only thing hipper than an old white hillbilly was an old black negra. Fact was, Doc sang the blues with same effortless emotional honesty and conviction as he did folk and country; he was unofficially anointed Grand Hayseed Emeritus as well as Honorary Negra Laureate.

Legend has long depicted Watson as a reluctant professional, a man pulled kicking and screaming from the comfort of grandpa's Deep Gap homestead to grudgingly thrill the world with his gifts. The absurd political correctness of the folk world dictated this spin, as if anyone who actually deigned to perform for filthy lucre were less than morally and ethically chaste. This is a notion which Watson classifies as "a bunch of crap."

"Lemme tell you something, there's two reasons I did this," he explains. "One was the music and entertaining people. The other was that I needed to earn a living for my family and I was tired of sitting around and being a burden on the state, taking charity. Any man that's worth his salt will want to work for a living. I think it's an honorable thing to want to do that. One reporter said, 'Oh, so it was the money, that's why you did this, huh?' Well, that made me mad. I never wanted to get rich and I never did anyhow."

Doc Watson playing guitar Failing to become wealthy but enjoying the beejeeziz out of himself all the same, Doc was a fixture on the trad country/folk circuit throughout the '60s, doing great work as a solo act as well as in tandem with such like-minded pickers as Flatt ↦ Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Commencing in the late '60s, Watson partnered up with son Merle, an expert guitarist and banjo picker in his own right. The duo toured incessantly and netted several Grammy Awards until Merle's tragic death in a 1985 farming accident. Emotionally devastated by the loss of Merle, whom Doc always referred to as "my best friend as well as my son," Watson ceased performing for a spell but resumed by the early '90s. For the past several years, he's been working with his grandson, Richard – Merle's son – a third generation of tuneful tradition.

"I enjoy playing with Richard just about as much as I enjoyed playing with Richard's dad," says Doc. "Richard don't play slide like Merle did but he plays blues just great. I'm certainly glad Richard started following in his dad's footsteps."

Today, Doc still lives on grandpa's Deep Gap farm but doesn't tour like he used to. "A man's age has something to do with that," he says, "I'm 80 years old and I get more tired than I used to." He's also obviously tired of fielding retarded questions from retarded music reporters and fanboys. "One time I was playing at Carnegie Hall and some old boy got it in his mind to yell out, 'Hey Doc Watson, are you truly a hillbilly?' I said, "You're damn right I am, and I'm proud of it."

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