It’s been a sad year in American roots music, as we say goodbye to another giant in bluegrass and folk music, Arthel “Doc” Watson. It seems like we just lost banjo legend Earl Scruggs—just when we caught our breath we got the sad news that Doc passed away on May 29. Like Earl, Doc was in his late 80s (he died at age 89), and kept performing until the end. And also like Earl, he brought so much beautiful music and positive energy into this world…
I looked around for some videos of Doc performing, and thought I’d share some of my favorites with you. Seems to me we should start with “Black Mountain Rag”—one of Doc’s signature tunes, and one that has been copied perhaps more than any other by aspiring young guitar players.
I saw some liner notes written by Pat Brayer on a David Grier album several years ago that drew a direct line in the history of bluegrass guitar from Riley Puckett to Doc Watson to Clarence White to David Grier. I think Pat nailed it (though personally I’d probably add Tony Rice as another offshoot from Clarence White). Doc was the first person to really play lead guitar in the bluegrass style that we call “flatpicking,” and it must have seemed pretty revolutionary in the early 60s to see this unassuming man tear into “Black Mountain Rag” or “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” Doc’s influence was huge—flatpicking guitar began with him, and to this day he’s still the standard reference for so much of it.
But merely calling Doc a bluegrass artist or a flatpicker doesn’t do him justice, as there was so much more to Doc Watson music than just bluegrass or old-time music. He was a great country blues player as well (he often credited Mississippi John Hurt as a major influence), and his Merle Travis-style fingerpicking was a big part of his music.
Here’s an early clip of Doc playing another of his signature songs: “Deep River Blues.”
I first saw Doc perform around 1981 in Park City, UT at a little club. He had his son Merle Watson with him (Merle tragically died in a tractor accident in 1985) along with T. Michael Coleman on the bass. So many of Doc’s classic recordings were made during this period; Merle’s bluesy fingerpicking and slide guitar added a wonderful dimension to Doc’s music. Here they are from sometime in the early 80s performing a two songs: “Make Me a Pallet” and “Streamline Cannonball.”
And I have to include my all-time favorite version of the standard “Sittin’ on Top of the World.” This is from Doc’s very first LP from 1962, and it’s just Doc by himself. I find his his bluesy guitar playing and understated singing very moving…I’d highly recommend this one!
Here’s another rendition of Doc playing that song much later in his life. He tells a story about picking cherries as a young man, and helping his younger sister (who, like him, was blind) get up into the tree to sit next to him.
When you go through Doc Watson videos on YouTube, you find a big variety of stuff that spans about 50 years. And it’s all good. Someone told me a few years ago that Doc still practiced the guitar every day, even well into his 80s. I don’t know if that was true or not, but I’d certainly believe it. His playing was still fiery, tasteful, and solid—and always so highly musical right to the end. Doc seemed to be a fully formed artist when he emerged in 1962 with his first Vanguard record, and looking back over his career you see a great body of work that never suffered with age, never seemed “burned out” or tired, and never even really repeated itself. And it was always delivered with grace and charm. Go seek out Doc and Merle’s “Down South” CD, or that first solo record, or “Pickin the Blues” (with Merle Watson and Sam Bush!), or “Portrait.” Or anything he did. You won’t be disappointed.
Doc Watson was the heart and soul of bluegrass guitar. He will be greatly missed.