The Story Behind The Song – Doc Watson Morning, D-18 Guitar Picking Kind of Day

Doc Watson Morning, D-18 Guitar Picking Kind of Day was written by Peter Rowan and Jerry Faires who, beginning the day after Doc Watson had passed away, collaborated on this sincere tribute to the great guitar player and singer.

The song has seen significant radio play, strong YouTube repeat viewings of different performances, including one at this year’s MerleFest (see below), and has become an integral part of Rowan’s current stage sets.

It is included on his latest album, The Old School (Compass Records 7 4600 2).

Peter Rowan takes up the story ………….

“I first met Doc in around 1959-60 when he came to Boston, Massachusetts to play a birthday concert at Jordan Hall. The headliner of the concert was to be Bill Monroe who was coming north, solo, from Nashville, Tennessee.

Ralph Rinzler (Green Briar Boys, Newport Folk Festival, Smithsonian Folk Life Dept.) had been Bill Monroe’s manager, and was responsible for Doc Watson’s emergence as a ‘folk-singer,’ in reality a singer and player of ‘old-time’ music with tremendous verve and style. Managing Monroe had been Ralph’s main job for a number of years, and he made a supreme effort to present Bill to a wider audience, colleges, even coffee houses. Ralph and Mike Seeger has written an article for Sing Out magazine, entitled, Bill Monroe, The Father of Bluegrass Music, with the aim of bringing Monroe into public awareness as the progenitor of bluegrass, the Father of the style. Although Bill was still on the Grand Ole Opry, his exposure to an enthusiastic college-age crowd would give him a re-focused career and a kind of second coming for his ‘pure’  bluegrass.

I was hired by banjoist Bill ‘Brad’ Keith as guitar player and lead singer for the show! Keith told me, ‘Call me Brad’ from Bradford, my middle name. Don’t call me Bill around Bill, there can be only one Bill in Bill Monroe’s band.’

Ralph Rinzler  ‘discovered’  Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson in the late 1950s, playing in bars and for dances near WIlkesboro, North Carolina. Doc had been blind since childhood and was trained at a nearby vocational school. Doc could shingle a roof, rebuild a car engine, and play the fire out of an electric, Gibson Les Paul guitar!

Ralph recorded Doc and his entire family at Doc’s cabin, on a Folkways recording, Doc Watson and Family, and another record that featured Doc, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s. These were landmark ‘field’ recordings that captured the still-living mountain tradition in the Deep Gap, North Carolina area. Ralph put his own vintage Martin D-18 guitar into Doc’s hands, who played it during this break-out period of his public performance career. Doc had reservations, but Ralph reassured him that the young folk-bluegrass fans would love his ‘homespun’ guitar picking and songs. He was right.

It was Doc’s birthday and he and Bill opened the Boston show with a set of early Monroe Brother’s singing duets, then Doc played solo, nervous and excited, playing so clean and true, humble on that big concert stage. Then we followed with Bill Monroe and the Blue Grass Boys. It was my first time to experience the electricity and fire that Monroe transmitted.

Doc stayed around Boston, living at Ralph’s and at Bill Keith and Jim Rooney’s apartment where I had to give up my bed on their couch for him. I had a lot of time, playing mandolin with the Keith & Rooney Band, listening to Doc’s stories, songs and guitar pickin’. Doc encouraged me and instilled a confidence in me that I could be a New England born Blue Grass Boy.

I woke up in a hotel room in San Francisco after a show there and heard the news of Doc’s passing (May 29, 2012). Tony Rice and I had done a show with Doc about two years earlier. Doc had seemed frail then, but cheerful and funny as always.

Jack Lawrence, Doc’s long-time pickin’ partner had mentioned that Doc was ‘slowing down a little.’ And we all went on playing Doc’s festival, MerleFest, every April. When I heard the news I called my buddy in Sante Fe, New Mexico, Jerry Faires. I had already written a line ‘a Doc Watson guitar-pickin’ sort of day.’ I asked Jerry how we was doing and he said, sadly, ‘Well, you know, it’s a Doc Watson D-18 kind of morning….’ And the song was born and on YouTube within the week, from one show I did in North Carolina with Jeff Mosier, about 50 miles as the crow flies from Deep Gap.”

Jerry Faires adds  ………….

Jerry Faires“On the 30th, the morning after Doc died, I called Peter to talk about that news. First thing, Peter asked, ‘Well, Jerry, what are you doing?’ I replied, ‘I’m drinking coffee and playing my D-18S.’ Pete said, ‘That’s what I’m doing, too.’ I said, ‘Well, Pete, it’s a D-18 kind of morning.’ And Pete said, ‘And a Doc Watson kind of day. Hey, hold on let me get some paper.’

With great excitement, Peter began throwing lines together. The only other thing I suggested was that the instrumental interludes be Doc’s iconic tunes, but that was, of course, a given; it just wouldn’t happen any other way, and it did happen that way with great beauty on the recording, no thanks to me.

After a few minutes of Peter reeling off words and lines, I said that he might e-mail me what he had, and I could add to, and we could go back and forth it (as we had done with our previous co-write, Come Back to Old Santa Fe). I got a text from Peter, ‘Jerry, it’s on YouTube.’ And there it was, the first performance, and as it should have been, in Black Mountain, North Carolina. Perfect.

By then, Peter had re-worked the ‘hook,’ and crafted yet another lovely Peter Rowan [with a bit of help from Jerry Faires and Doc Watson] song. And a wonderful song it is, a tender, beautiful, and true remembrance of a fine musician and a remarkable human being.

The story as told in the song has a universal connection for any player of guitar. All players, I believe, saw Doc as I did, first chair acoustic guitar player, for as long as he lived, and a cherished memory to all who were touched by his music, whether players or not.”

Doc Watson Morning, D-18 Guitar Picking Kind of Day
© Peter Rowan (Sea Lion Music) / Jerry Faires (Silversmith Music)

Well it rained all night in Frisco, now the clouds have rolled away,
And the city lights are glistening out across the Bay
I think about Doc Watson and I pick up my guitar to play
“Cause it’s a Doc Watson morning, D-18, guitar picking kind of day;

Now Doc’s real name was Arthel Watson and he played electrical guitar,
The beauty of his melodies were known both near and far,
Somewhere in the ‘sixties Doc picked up that D-18,
Started pickin them home-spun tunes, clear water from a mountain stream

So I pick up my old guitar and I start to play
‘Cause it’s a Doc Watson morning, D-18 guitar pickin’ kind of day

Now Doc could play the Tennessee Stud and The Black Mountain Blues,
He left a legacy for me and for you,
The sweetest song I ever heard him sing was with Miss Rosalie,
“Oh my darlin’, my darlin’, my heart breaks as you take your long journey”.

In Deep Gap, North Carolina, some folks up there might say,
It’s a Doc Watson morning, D-18 guitar picking kind of day……

Copyright reserved. Reprinted with permission.

Peter Rowan performs Doc Watson Morning, D-18 Guitar Picking Kind of Day during the Tribute to Doc Watson on the Watson Stage at MerleFest 2013, accompanied by Bryan Sutton ……..

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About the Author

Richard Thompson

Richard F. Thompson is a long-standing free-lance writer specialising in bluegrass music topics. A two-time Editor of British Bluegrass News, he has been seriously interested in bluegrass music since about 1970. As well as contributing to that magazine, he has, in the past 30 plus years, had articles published by Country Music World, International Country Music News, Country Music People, Bluegrass Unlimited, MoonShiner (the Japanese bluegrass music journal) and Bluegrass Europe. He wrote the annotated series I'm On My Way Back To Old Kentucky, a daily memorial to Bill Monroe that culminated with an acknowledgement of what would have been his 100th birthday, on September 13, 2011.