A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

Each month, Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina songs and musicians.

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

Each month, Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina songs and musicians.

Each month, Our State senior editor — and resident soundtrack maker — Mark Kemp, a former music editor of Rolling Stone, curates a one-of-a-kind Spotify playlist featuring North Carolina songs and musicians.


In his more than 50-year music career, the late and legendary Doc Watson of Deep Gap played a dizzying variety of deeply American music, from old-time country gospel to traditional Appalachian folk ballads to the Piedmont- and country-blues songs that he’d hear and learn from Black American musicians like Elizabeth Cotten of Chapel Hill and the Mississippi Sheiks of Bolton, Mississippi. Blind since early childhood, Watson had an uncanny ability to blend all these styles together seamlessly, creating a sound that’s come to define North Carolina music — warm and friendly downhome vocals accompanied by crisp and precise acoustic guitar playing.

It would be impossible to sum up Watson’s prodigious recorded output — both with his family and friends, and as a solo artist — in a basic Top 10 or Top 20 list. So for our Watson Family playlist this month, we’ve picked 40 songs that attempt to show exactly who Doc Watson was — as a singer of traditional Appalachian folk songs, as a banjo player, a harmonica player, as an extraordinary finger-style guitarist, and as a pioneering flat-picker whose influence on subsequent generations of folk and bluegrass guitarists can’t be overstated — and what role his family played in creating this very North Carolina sound.

The playlist runs in roughly chronological order, beginning in the early 1960s with seven old-time folk, fiddle, and banjo tunes that Watson recorded with his family — father-in-law Gaither Carlton, a well-known fiddler; wife Rosa Lee Watson and mother Annie Watson, both traditional Appalachian singers; and others. Neighbor Clarence Ashley, a prominent North Carolina clawhammer banjo player, shows up here performing the folk standard “Crawdad Song” — a tune that Andy Griffith would later make famous on his popular ’60s TV sitcom. And mandolin player Bill Monroe, the father of bluegrass music, plays and sings with Doc on a live version of the aching gospel ballad “What Would You Give in Exchange for Your Soul.”

From there, the playlist follows Watson’s solo career and his years of performing as a duo with his son, Merle. Here, we get a string of the murder ballads that Watson performed — “Little Omie Wise,” “Tom Dooley,” “Matty Groves” — as well as bluesier tunes like “Sittin’ on Top of the World,” “Weary Blues,” and “Rising Sun Blues.” To really understand what made Watson click with audiences, though, is to hear his live performances, and for that, we’ve included three songs from his 1971 album Doc Watson on Stage featuring Merle Watson. It was around that time that young rock musicians began gravitating to old-time music. The Southern California group Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released an album in 1972, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, that featured guest appearances by country-music giants like the legendary Mother Maybelle Carter, NC banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, and Watson. We include two hugely important Watson songs from that album: “Tennessee Stud” and “Black Mountain Rag.” Doc and Merle continued experimenting throughout the ‘70s, putting a little rockabilly swagger into “Match Box Blues,” a 1920s Blind Lemon Jefferson song made famous in the ‘50s by rockabilly king Carl Perkins and then, later, in the ‘60s, by the Beatles.

Watson was fond of collaboration, and we include several key collaborations in the latter part of the playlist: “On My Way to Canaan’s Land,” which he performed with Nashville guitar innovator Chet Atkins; “Doc & Dawg,” performed with hippie mandolin player David Grisman; and “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down,” performed with Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs. Tragically, Watson’s son, Merle, was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, and the elder Watson never fully recovered from the loss. But he kept on playing, launching the annual Merlefest three years later in North Wilkesboro. There, Doc would perform with a multitude of younger musicians he’d influenced, including his grandson, Richard, Merle’s son. We’ve included a couple of their collaborations at the end of the playlist. By the 2000s, Doc’s voice had become frail, and he had a hard time getting around without help. But the passion and energy in his music never waned. Nor did his deeply held religious conviction, as you can hear in the final song on this playlist, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” In May of 2012, Watson died at 89 after a fall at his home in Deep Gap. But his musical imprint has traveled around the world, and the best place to hear it is at Merlefest, held each spring during the last week in April.

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