James Watson, noted clawhammer banjo player and entertainer from Roanoke, AL, died June 1, 2017 from pulmonary heart disease and complications of type II diabetes. He was 81 years of age.
For many years Watson performed as a member of Doodle and the Golden River Grass, who started as a square dance group out of Georgia and eventually became a marquee attraction based on their high energy show filled with fiddle tunes and comedy. He recorded 17 albums with Golden River Grass, plus his own solo album, Mountain Clawhammer Way Down in the Country, in 1986, and is included on several anthologies and collections of folk and old time music.
Here’s a video of James recorded back in 1991 at the Valentine’s Bluegrass Festival in Rome, GA. It’s of him picking John Hardy with Doodle and the boys, and highlights how he retained the old time mountain style on the five string.
Television and film actor Randall Franks, who performed for a time with the Golden River Grass, remembers Watson as a distinctive stylist.
“James had an amazing ability to create a rhythm that allowed a fiddler to just go anywhere musically they could reach while he never veered or slowed his steam – ‘no dragging’ as he would say. His lead playing was unique to himself and though he looked to Uncle Dave Macon and Grandpa Jones as inspirations, he was original in what he did, always sharing an intensity and concentration that thrilled the audience. There was no one in folk, bluegrass or country who brought to the stage what he did.”
Watson’s contributions are memorialized in an exhibit now on display at the Randolph County Historical Museum. Past exhibits in the Georgia Music Hall of Fame in Macon, GA were displayed from 1996-2010, and James was inducted into the Atlanta Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007.
Franks is working now with Grammy-winning engineer Michael Graves to complete a Golden River Grass anthology project, to include James’ 1986 solo album.
An announcement concerning funeral arrangements is pending, but will be handled by Quattlebaum Funeral Home in Roanoke, AL.
R.I.P., James Watson.