The Circle Will Be Unbroken

Guy Clark didn’t mince words when he sang, “I have seen the David/ I’ve seen the “Mona Lisa” too/ I have heard Doc Watson/ Play “Columbus Stockade Blues.” It might be decades before Watson’s legacy is completely unraveled, but the festival that he founded and steered into one of folk’s great commodities feels the impact of his loss right now.


Doc Watson never claimed, nor even wanted, stardom. His relationship with his own celebrity, however, would at the same time be one of the biggest boondoggles in his life. For a man who would have been as satisfied with a career as a carpenter or electrician had his fortunes broken just a little differently, accepting the fact that he was one of the most important figures in American folk music was a dicey proposition when his foremost role in his own mind was as a provider to his family. How he went about it, maintains renowned luthier Wayne Henderson, one of Watson’s closest friends and owner of the Virginia guitar shop where he spent a great deal of time in his final years, ultimately made no difference to him.

But Doc Watson was as unlikely a star as there was, the owner of a 60-year performing and recording career that was at the vanguard of more than one folk music revival, a picker par excellence who was idolized among the worlds of old time, bluegrass, country, blues and all adjacent communities. That opposition between the Doc Watson who bore Paul Bunyan-esque stature as a cultural basin and the Doc Watson who was a humble, tractable family man who could also pick a blue streak was maybe never more eloquently depicted than in British ethnomusicologist AL Lloyd’s 1976 documentary, Three Days with Doc.

Arguably at the height of his world-traveling, Grammy-winning renown, it shows Watson and his band — which included his son Merle Watson and longtime bass accompanist T. Michael Coleman — sitting down to a Charlotte Coliseum audience of around 10,000, the whole room animated to the point of near bedlam. Then there was Doc, shushing them like an unruly 5-year old, gently scolding, after a few attempts to circumvent the escalating waves of noise, with an idle threat: “If you shout, we won’t pick. I mean that now,” he said demurely. “We appreciate the enthusiasm, but if you yell….” The next scenes, Doc picking in the living room of his Deep Gap home, were in breathtaking contrast.

“Doc never had any aspirations of being famous, he still always run that down as long as he lived. He was just fortunate to find out that he could do something to make a living. I’ve seen people fuss over him, what a legend and how great he was. He didn’t want to hear none of that stuff,” Henderson said from his Grayson County guitar shop. “More than anything else he wanted to be one of the people. That’s what he called it. You couldn’t help brag on him and be in awe of him, even some of us that knew him real well, but he’d fuss at you.”

The same would come of anyone who would place Doc as the focal point of MerleF- est; it is and will always be the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival, not the Doc Watson Festival, he was known to remind (though, ironically, ask longtime Watson comrade and MerleFest staple Sam Bush and he will say that Merle, an intensely private individual, would be terrifically embarrassed by the attention). MerleFest Director Ted Hagaman noted that it had to be that way because MerleFest was Doc’s means of abiding a loss he would never completely overcome — not just the loss of a son, Doc’s longtime accompanist Jack Lawrence added, but of his best friend and someone who would add an entirely new dimension to his music as his recording career was taking off. Given the number of official and impromptu Doc Watson tributes that will occur at next weekend’s MerleFest 26, and likely for years to come, fussing over Doc will replace getting fussed at by Doc.

“Doc and I talked about the future of the festival several times over the past two or three years, and certainly, his wishes we want to continue to honor,” Hagaman said. “No. 1, he wanted it to continue to be a festival that honored his son, Merle, and of course that’s why the festival was started and far as Doc was concerned.”

Yet, MerleFest’s prosperity is owed largely to Doc’s presence; he exerted inexorable gravity on a world where the combination of authenticity, propriety and ability are prized above all else, and MerleFest is the rare festival where the influence of a single individual continues to serve as the compass for its curatorial vision. Moogfest, Asheville’s emergent electronic weekender that honors the influence of synth inventor Bob Moog (and which will return in 2014, ostensibly moving from Halloween into the same weekend as MerleFest), offers a paralleling concept in an entirely different musical arena, albeit MerleFest remains unique in that Moog’s influence was entirely post-obit.

The artists might be most affected by Doc’s absence, and also that of his wife Rosa Lee who passed in November. Jim Lauderdale described Doc’s comings and goings as being accompanied by a buzzing: “The kind of an excitement that the king had arrived. Because he was, he was a king to me,” Lauderdale said. Without Doc, MerleFest is left with a yawning maw at its core that those closest to him acknowledge cannot be replaced, even if his absence doesn’t preclude the possibility of continued creative growth given his extensive, often unfathomable repertoire.

“Doc was actually a very modern man,” Lawrence said during a recent phone interview. “People forget or don’t realize that, before he met [Smithsonian folklorist] Ralph Rinzler, he played electric guitar in rockabilly and dance bands, and played the hits of the day. He had to work hard to remember the old songs.”

Merle hired Lawrence two years before his accidental death primarily to handle road duties while Merle stayed back to work at the Watson family homestead, and what he noticed at that time was an act that was ever so subtly expanding the boundaries of the old-time and folk idioms. Doc had already begun to branch out considerably on record, not only in his choice of material, but how he would present old material. He reinvented the traditional “Walking Boss” for his landmark 1975 album Memories, a song originally given a rather cursory treatment more than a decade before alongside Clarence Ashley, with a hint of vibrato in his voice and made all the more meaner by Merle’s buzzy accompaniment. Not long after, Watson’s recreation of that piece would grow even more teeth on the debut LP by grunge pioneers the Meat Puppets and remain a staple of their live sets for the ensuing 30 years. 

But regardless of how they cribbed Doc’s vociferous picking style into the early folds one of rock’s greatest sea changes, the idea of the Meat Puppets headlining the Doc & Merle Watson Theatre is comical given Doc’s other wishes, according to his meetings with Hagaman, which are to continue upholding the values and traditions for which the festival is famous. Achieving that end while keeping regulars happy and courting younger audiences is an ongoing chore for the festival, however unbecoming that reality of festivaleering might seem. Though bookings are coming more in line with tastes of teen and twentysomething audiences (this year’s Delta Rae acquisition give them one of folk’s most lucrative commercial crossovers), communicating the festival’s value to increasingly younger and more musically astute audiences has been and will always be a challenge. Scott Avett of the Avett Brothers remembers a time when he lacked an understanding of the sometimes equivocal qualities that define MerleFest.

“I was clueless to it. I think Seth and I were making our best effort to understand our perceptions of what old-time, or country blues, or country music were. I never understood why certain bands, like why did G-Love never play at MerleFest?” Avett said. “Why did Langhorne Slim never play at MerleFest? Why did Bon Iver never play at MerleFest? Those things were confusing to me because I never saw the genres of old time or country or bluegrass as being nostalgic only, and I think sometimes it’s still in jeopardy of being that.”

Avett is cautious to acknowledge it, but when he embraced the banjo as an East Carolina University undergrad — a decision made with a definite halo of irony amidst a crowd of rockers and punks — he and his brother were years ahead of a sweeping integration of mountain roots sounds into popular music.

“I think we are products of something that had changed and we all assumed that we were part of a revival that I personally thought was happening in 2003 when I met Regina Spektor, Langhorne Slim and Paleface,” he said.

In the past few years alone, the banjo has been a centerpiece in Taylor Swift’s colossal arena tours; it helped Mumford & Sons win a Grammy for Album of the Year this year; the Lumineers strummed it into what was the first of potentially numerous No. 1 singles; and even indie rapper Macklemore found a place for it on his breakthrough album The Heist, for the most part, all occurring after the Avett Brothers set a single-day MerleFest attendance record with their 2010 Sunday afternoon set. Avett remembers that winning the MerleFest crowd over, however, didn’t happen immediately.

“[In 2006] I remember being affected deeply by looking out in the crowd and expecting everyone to love it, But instead seeing not just a couple of people, a whole group of unrelated people getting up and clearly leaving as we were starting,” he said. “It’s interesting. I don’t know why we get to go back. I think we translate through all that. I think there’s a little space for what people will tolerate as far as change.”

If the festival itself sometimes seems to embrace changes in its programming at a snail’s pace, one only need to look to its educational outreach to understand that it is sowing their seeds years in advance. There’s a definite, if difficult path from learning the ways of the picker to achieving a booking, and it starts there. Wayne Henderson and Sam Bush are among many of its regular performers who take part in the festival’s in-school performance program, the flipside of which is the festival’s School Day, when thousands of Wilkes County students spend Friday morning at MerleFest. The ongoing Little Pickers Tent provides instruction and the chance to learn the art in a setting that all of the greats hone their skills, and the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is renowned for launching the careers of unknown songwriters. That outside rivulets of musical influence are seeping into the flow ensures a progressive spirit exists within its inherent checks and balances. 

There was no better example of that than Doc Watson himself, according to Jack Lawrence, who said Doc founded the festival under the banner of traditionalplus — “Meaning traditional, plus whatever the hell else I want to play,” he said.

Though there have been acts in the past that Doc would term a bit of a stretch, he was a lover of jazz, classical and rock, and it was usually Merle that was the catalyst in expanding his tastes. Lawrence remembers Doc and Merle riding down the road listening to the Allman Brothers Band — whether or not Doc wanted to at first, he noted — which Doc came to enjoy because Merle loved them. Even more of a stretch, there was also English art rock on constant rotation in the Watson household.

“Merle told me he wore out a copy of the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed on vinyl, played it till he couldn’t play it anymore. Michael Coleman and I always talked that we should play ‘Nights In White Satin,’ and Doc said, ‘Yeah, that would be a good one,’” Lawrence remembered. “Well, we never did, and then 10 or 15 years ago when it was just Doc and me on the road, I found that record was rereleased on CD, so I gave him a copy and said, ‘Here, try to wear this out.’ 

The next time we went on the road — and of course I had not done my homework — Doc said, ‘Next song is “Nights In White Satin” in A- minor.’ I’m thinking, ‘Oh God, I should have bought one of those for myself.’” Lawrence will be among the multitudes participating in MerleFest’s Saturday night tribute to Doc Watson — a jam that will include Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan, Jeff Little, T. Michael Coleman, members of Merle’s old band Frosty Morn, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, potentially the Avett Brothers, should they arrive early enough, and a finale with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band — which will assuredly enter the canon of highly anticipated tribute sets that includes Jack Hartford’s tribute and the My Friend Merle set. At the very least it’s the kind of tribute befitting a man — a star in his field — like Doc Watson. Just don’t let him hear you say that, or else he’ll fuss at you.

Memories of Doc

For a man who never once saw the world around him, Doc Watson’s recollections could be as vivid as watercolor. There was hardly a place he went, a song he sang or a person he met that didn’t have a story attached, but some of those people have their own stories about Doc.

Scott Avett, the Avett Brothers

It was always pretty amazing and beautiful when Seth was 13, we were getting to know who Doc Watson was. He invited Seth to his house while to sit down and play the piano for him. At that time, Seth was working really hard to learn songs. It was nothing but an older gentleman and a teenager spending time like a grandfather and a grandson, and Doc was simply excited about hearing these young singers exploring and discovering music. In a lot of ways, it set us up for what we were going to be doing. That’s an important time in a kid’s life music-wise. Most importantly, Doc may have stopped Seth from being a pop star. Thank God.

Sam Bush, mandolinist/fiddler

Growing up in Bowling Green, Ky., I used to play square dances and my dad was friends with a guitar player named Gib Cassidy. Gib was a blind man, and he taught me the way that he liked to be led, which was the same way that Doc liked to do it — holding onto your arm and being a half step behind you. That way if you do up a step, he would know. Doc, Merle, Michael and I were playing out at the Strawberry Music Festival out at Camp Mather in Yosemite Park one day. I was leading Doc back up on stage for the encore and clumsy me, I tripped and of course Doc almost went down with me. I was so embarrassed I said, “Doc, I’m so sorry, I’m so clumsy.” He said, “Oh Sam, you know I pushed you.”

There was another time in 1974 when we were touring with Frosty Morn. As we drove up through the Redwoods, there was one tree so big you could drive through it. We were inside one of the giant redwoods and the sound was so fascinating, I can’t remember what gospel song we sang but Doc started one up and we all started singing with him. Kind of makes me almost tear up to think about it.

Jack Lawrence, longtime Doc Watson accompanist

On my new CD, Arthel’s Guitar, I’m using this old Martin D-18 guitar that Doc gave me probably over 25 years ago. He had used it on a bunch of his old records in the ’60s and I grew up listening to this particular guitar on record and learned to play from it. I liked the way it sounded better than just about any guitar I ever heard him play, so I called it Arthel.

On the title cut, the notes just kind of came out of this guitar one day like they were hiding in there forever. I didn’t have to work hard to put the tune together. It just came to me all at once while I was playing this guitar one afternoon about 10 years ago. It’s amazing to me, looking back on my life at almost 60 years old, I was an 11-, 12-year-old kid listening to this guitar on record trying to figure out how to play, never thinking that at that point in my life I would spend 25 years working with Doc, let alone owning the guitar that he played on those old records.

John Cloyd Miller, Red June guitarist and Chris Austin Songwriting Contest finalist

The first Doc Watson album I ever had was Riding the Midnight Train. At the time, I was in college and was listening to a lot of jam bands and rock in addition to bluegrass. When I came across this Doc record, I was entranced. The warm, inviting sound of his voice and, of course, the always tasteful “just right” guitar playing. I ended up learning every song on the album, not because I was trying to, but because they just made their way into my brain. That’s how Doc’s music was — effortless sounding, stirring, yet very comfortable and familiar.

Riley Baugus, guitarist and luthier

On one of my visits to Doc and Rosa Lee, Doc and I were talking about our first guitars. I was telling him the story of how I had done what so many old time musicians had done and bought my first guitar from Sears-Roebuck. Well, I did just that. I saved my money, ordered the guitar and the day it came I played it way into the night until my fingers were so sore that I couldn’t touch the strings any longer. I was telling Doc about how high the string action was and how hard it was to press those strings on that cheap guitar. Remembering back when he was a young, new musician, with his typical wit and good humor, he said, “Son, I had one like that as my first guitar. The strings were so high it was like fretting a fence.” It was a great feeling to have Doc Watson telling me that he had learned on the same kind of awful guitar, but wanted to play so badly that he just kept suffering the pain to make it happen. That one comment from him continues to give me confidence when things are difficult. It might be like fretting a fence, but just keep on doing it anyway.

Amanda Platt, the Honeycutters

The first time I saw Doc Watson was at City Hall in New York City at a showcase for the Smithsonian Folkways. I was just there because my friend’s parents had something to do with putting it on. I was a skeptical teenager. I had grown up listening to country and roots music, but was determined to be a punk rocker. When it was time for Doc’s set he was helped out on stage and I remember thinking how bored I was going to be. Then when he started to play my jaw dropped and I was hooked, grinning from ear to ear the whole time and tapping my foot. I think that may have been the moment I realized it was okay for me to just give in and like this kind of music.

Jim Lauderdale, songwriter

I’ll remember just getting to talk to him more than anything. He really liked the record that I got to do with Ralph Stanley called Lost In the Lonesome Pines. It meant the world to me and it still kind of boggles my mind that he would listen to my music on a CD. I’d always give Rosa Lee one whenever I had a new one out, and I’d always try to visit with him at MerleFest. I didn’t want to tax him too much; I knew he had a lot of people to visit with. It really meant a lot to me just to sit and chat with him.

Wayne Henderson, luthier

I just made one guitar and one mandolin for Doc, but I would fix his Gallaghers because he was always knocking dings in them. The guitar I made him was a koa wood D-size with herringbone on it. And I think he was thinking of Rosa Lee maybe, of course he always was. It wouldn’t have made any difference to Doc what inlay was on it, but he asked me if I could inlay a rose on it. He said put a rose and some little hearts on it. I put a pickup in it for him to play it, and then I never saw it as much as I’d like to. I was having dinner with him while picking a guitar up to work on, so I asked him about it and Rosa Lee yelled at him and said, “You ain’t taking that one out and beatin’ it up, that’s my guitar.”

John McEuen, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Doc’s Ticklin’ the Strings (Live at Newport Folk Festival) has inspired me since hearing it in 1964. After Earl Scruggs said, “Yes,” recording with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band in June of 1971, I then had the nerve up to ask my guitar mentor the same question a week later — and he said yes! 

At the “…Circle..” sessions Doc’s attitude of excitement was contagious. We were all excited to record with the actual guy we idolized since our west coast beginnings. Truly one of our landmark recordings thanks to him, Doc’s Tennessee Stud let us be in his world we had been emulating, and made us feel we were a part of “an old record.”

Doc’s humility, evident to all, was passed along to Merle, who helped paved the way for his dad to be on “Circle.” Though asked, Merle was adamant and said, “This is for dad.. I don’t need to play,” something we wish had happened to this day. We all thank Doc for his music and inspirations.

I will never forget when a festival promoter asked if he could go earlier than scheduled, Doc said, “Doesn’t matter to me what part of the team I’m hitched to, we’re all pullin’ the same load.”