Doc Watson set the mold for flatpicking, and it was pretty much an accident. But not because he couldn’t play; on the contrary, it was as natural to him as breathing. The man who played hollow body electric for Jack Williams’ dance band in Johnson City, TN for years had to learn how to play fiddle tunes note-for-note because there wasn’t a regular fiddler in the band. When Ralph Rinzler came to western North Carolina looking to record Clarence Ashley, he found Doc instead, and encouraged him to flatpick tunes on acoustic guitar so he would better fit in the burgeoning folk music scene.
Thus began the style that influenced everyone who picked up a flatpick and an acoustic guitar afterwards. Clarence White was so overwhelmed by the style that it profoundly influenced him to change his approach to the instrument. Tony Rice recalled that the first time he heard Doc’s playing on record “It was like God had come down and started playing a D-28.” Not many younger players know to this day how many of Doc’s arrangements and tunes became part of Tony’s repertoire. In the 1960s and 70s, that was true of artists like Dan Crary as well.
I came to Doc after I had tried to learn how to play lead on the instrument, but I always remembered tunes like The Train That Carried My Girl From Town. And, like a lot of folks at the time who were trying to learn about this elephant called bluegrass/old-time/acoustic by feeling our way around the animal as best we could, it was some time before I realized he was sightless. And ageless. I asked Tony Rice at Merlefest two years ago, while we were listening to Doc tearing it up, how he could continue to do so at his advanced age. Tony said, “He can’t see the evil that’s in the world.” I don’t know if that’s true, but it was clear from his playing and singing that Doc let very little get in the way of his emotions or performance. It was like he had a direct line to something bigger, almost divine.
In these days following his death, a lot of people will say a lot of things about Doc’s playing, his personality, his closeness to and love for his son Merle and his wife Rosa Lee, his unbelievable ability to do things like wire his house and build sheds and other buildings perfectly… All amazing and perfectly fitting. I will remember him as perhaps the most natural musician I ever heard, with an incredible and varied repertoire, the most perfect honey baritone voice, and a way of playing that was utterly his own. And it was awesome. It was definitely one of the highlights of our careers that he liked Blue Highway and even wrote some liner notes for us over the years.
We have lost too many recently who can’t be replaced, real standard bearers. The music will go on, but like so many of the first generation greats, there will never be another Doc Watson, or anyone remotely like him.
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