Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson
photograph by Peter Figen and Joey and Jessica Seawell

It’s a fall day in 1974. We’re sitting around my buddy’s dorm room, and he puts on a record he says will knock me out. At first all I hear are traditional old-time tunes — “Keep on the Sunny Side” and “You Are My Flower,” that sort of thing. Then a harmonica teases out a bass line, and suddenly a cascade of guitar notes tumbles out of the big JBL speakers with a kind of offhand precision, easygoing and sweet, as if the picker is playing on his front porch, playing simply for joy and not for any audience. The rich baritone voice eases in, singing the words to an old Jimmy Driftwood ballad: “Long about eighteen twenty-five, I left Tennessee very much alive. I never would have got through the Arkansas mud if I hadn’t been a-ridin’ that Tennessee Stud.”

No pretension or stagey effort, just melodious voice with bottom, a workingman’s voice accented with the flavor of the North Carolina mountains. Not polished or slick, neither too cool nor too sentimental. Clear as a Sunday sermon, but hinting of worldly mischief.

If a sound could be called honest, it’s Doc Watson picking the riffs and singing the words of “Tennessee Stud,” that story-song about an independent man, his faithful horse, and his true love, the guitar cantering along underneath the words in a steady gait.

I was a college kid trying to play over my head on a Martin dreadnought in a band called Renegade. I’d never heard of Doc Watson until our piano player — coincidentally also named Doc — keyed up that album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken — a studio fusion of traditional players and some young country rockers called the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. And there was Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson playing on his Gallagher dreadnought, Ol’ Hoss. He’d already been touring for half as long as I’d been alive, but now he played for a whole new generation. Now he was ours.

Doc plays both finger-style and flat-picking. The finger-style guitar is his own self-taught method using thumb and index finger — not much different from the style developed by some old-time banjo players. Except Doc likes to mute the bass string with the heel of his hand, creating a percussive backbeat, something like his own guitar hero, Merle Travis, might do.

But flat-picking — what the old-timers called “straight-picking” — put Doc on the map. Until Doc came along, in country and bluegrass ensembles, the acoustic guitar was used mainly for rhythm, keeping a steady midrange bed of sound under the vocals, fiddle, and mandolin. With Doc, the guitar became the star of the show. He plays up and down the whole neck, the fluttering notes climbing the ladder with alternating up and down strokes, from the rattling bass of the fat, low E string all the way up to the high, lonesome sound at the top of the fretboard. He plays with soft hands, no brass in the notes, no aggressive “attack” on the strings. The little finger of his right hand glides along the pickguard to keep his hand in place by feel.

The strokes. So clean, crisp, definite. And fast. So fast it sounds easy, like the notes are just sliding off the strings with no pressure. Until, that is, you try to play the riff yourself. Then your fingers realize just how much dexterity and quick-firing muscle memory is required to make the guitar sing like Doc’s.

And then you understand: You don’t have it. It’s special. It belonged to Doc.

• • •

Doc was a Watauga County native, born in Stony Fork in 1923, number six in a family of nine children. His home since boyhood was Deep Gap.

He lost his sight as an infant, the result of an infection that left him with only a little light perception. But the blindness didn’t stop him from roughhousing outdoors with his brothers, and when he was 14, his father, General Watson, put him to work on the other end of a crosscut saw. “It taught me that I didn’t have to sit in the corner as a handicapped person and that I could work. After about a week, my muscles got used to it. I was proud as I could be,” he told David Holt on the Legacy album, a classic three-disc compilation of songs, stories, and interviews spanning a long career that has won him seven Grammy Awards and a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.

Doc was so strongly identified with his guitar-playing that many people don’t know he first played the harmonica — learning at the age of 5 on a Hohner Old Standby in the key of C, a gift from his father. In fact, every year thereafter, his father gave him a new harp for Christmas. Later, his father crafted him a fretless banjo with a cat-skin head, and his oldest brother, Arnold, gave him some basic lessons. Doc also contrived a bass out of a piece of wire strung to the woodshed door. When his father decided Doc ought to have a real instrument, he bought the boy a Kalamazoo banjo for $7 and told him, “I want you to learn to pick it good. Might help you get through the world, son.”

Only later did Doc hear guitar playing — not live, but recorded. “I didn’t know what the thing was on the record, but Lord, it sounded good!” he said.

He attended the School for the Blind in Raleigh, starting just before he turned 11. There, he met a young jazz-guitar player named Paul Montgomery, a lefty, who let Doc try out his Kalamazoo guitar. So Doc learned his first guitar chords upside down and backwards.

He gave his first performance at a Friday evening amateur hour at the school. On his homemade banjo, he frailed out some favorite tunes, such as “Cripple Creek” and “Shortening Bread.” “I was just as happy as I could be, patting my little old foot and picking that banjo the best I could,” Doc said. “I got back to the little boys’ dormitory, and the matron slapped my face and told me I was conceited.”

But Doc persevered and bought a guitar with money he saved sawing wood — a Silvertone from Sears, Roebuck & Company. He spent disciplined years perfecting his fast, clean technique. What players call “woodsheddin’” — repetitious practice that leads to virtuosity.

In those days, he played on the radio from a furniture store in Lenoir. The DJ wanted to know if he had a shorter name than “Arthel.” A radio name? “Somebody in the audience, some girl, said ‘Call him Doc!’ and it stuck,” he said. “It was just that simple.” He was 18, making his way in the world.

• • •

He was also a familiar figure on the streets of Boone, playing for tips. He drew people in with both his playing ability and his naturally affable manner, his ready sense of humor. He would salt his performances with folktales and jokes in between songs. His break came in 1960 when he met Ralph Rinzler. Rinzler was in Union Grove in search of a banjo player named Tom Ashley. Rinzler persuaded Doc there was a place for him in the folk revival that had begun to sweep the cities and college campuses.

For Doc, old folk songs like “Tom Dooley” — a huge hit for the Kingston Trio in those days — were family heirlooms. “I learned the melody that I use and some of the lyrics from my grandmother,” he said. “Her mother and dad knew Tom Dula’s family, and she told me a lot that I know about the happening. The Kingstons in their narrative at the beginning talk about the eternal triangle, but actually, from the story Grandmother told, there was four people involved. There was two guys and two gals. Tom Dula was involved with both girls and so was Mr. Grayson, mentioned in Tom Dula’s song. And it was generally believed — and Tom Dula swore he never harmed a hair on Laura’s head — that Annie Melton stabbed the girl and Tom helped to cover up the crime, and Annie Melton was in jail for a while. She made her brags that they’d never put a rope around her pretty, white neck.”

So Doc’s songs were authentic, handed down from relatives, learned from other mountain players.

Rinzler booked a gig for himself, Ashley, and Doc at the Ash Grove, a club in Hollywood, but before long, it became apparent that Doc and his guitar could hold a stage all by themselves. Soon Doc was performing solo, traveling by Greyhound, playing far from home, lonely for his wife, Rosa Lee — whom he had courted with the song “Shady Grove.” Before long, he was more famous in New York than in Boone.

When Doc’s son Merle turned out to be a natural virtuoso on the guitar, he joined Doc on the road in 1964. Merle became Doc’s business partner and best friend, but he died in a tractor accident in 1985. In the 21 years in between, they produced more than a dozen albums and won two of the Grammys.

John McEuen recruited Doc for the Circle album at Merle’s birthday party. Because Merle wasn’t invited to play, Doc almost turned down the gig. But it was Merle who insisted he play on the album. Merle saw that the folk craze of the 1960s was winding down, and they needed something to make people notice Doc’s music again. They needed to reach a new audience.

Merle was right. We were listening, ready for him.

Doc plays on some of the most rousing cuts on the album, including “I Saw the Light” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” He plays alongside legends like Roy Acuff and Maybelle Carter, and he finally got to meet Merle Travis, the man who inspired his finger-style syncopation. And while those and other players on the album are among the greats of their genre, they remain firmly ensconced in the tradition.

• • •

The first thing that made Doc special was his ability to transcend genre. He was inspired by the rural, mountain music tradition. And then he enlarged it, folding into it the best of folk, blues, and a more contemporary repertoire. It became his own personal trademark. So you hear Doc covering Bob Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” in his signature finger-style, infusing it with just a touch of bluegrass zest in its galloping rhythm. There’s Doc on YouTube, trading breaks with Leo Kottke and Chet Atkins.

The second thing that Doc achieved was to fundamentally redefine his instrument. Doc gave the guitar a voice all its own.

But for his blindness, Doc Watson likely would have chosen another way to make a living with his hands — electrician, carpenter, or engineer. In a 1999 interview, he meditates on what that early challenge meant to his life: “I think God made me blind to humble me. I think the handicap made me realize I have to depend on others. It mellowed me out, especially in my older years. There was a time when I had a persecution complex because for the handicap … when I was much younger. … But what brought me out of feeling sorry for myself was life itself — and realizing that I loved somebody I was responsible to and who needed me. Life is the best teacher of all.”

The stretch of U.S. Highway 421 that carries travelers near Deep Gap bears a sign declaring it the “Doc and Merle Watson Highway.” At the corner of King and Depot streets in Boone, there’s a sculpture depicting Doc sitting on a bench playing his guitar, inscribed: “Just one of the People.”

After hearing the Circle album, our band almost immediately incorporated a version of “I Saw the Light,” and I still play “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and every time I replay Doc’s version of “Tennessee Stud,” I realize all over again that the easiest songs are sometimes the hardest. My version never quite sounds as good as his.

Those notes from Doc’s Ol’ Hoss — those lovely, tripping, mellow guitar notes — splashing onto my ears, declare loud and clear that the circle of music from mountain to city and back again, from bygone days to days far in the future, remains unbroken.

Selected Sources

  • “Doc Watson: Flatpicking Legend,” by Dan Miller, Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Vol. 2, No. 6, September/October 1998.
  • Doc and Merle Watson In Concert,” (DVD) Rounder, 1999 and 2003.
  • “Legacy: Doc Watson, David Holt,” (CD) High Windy Audio, 2002.
  • The Three Pickers: Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, Ricky Skaggs, (DVD) Ginger Camp Productions and Thirteen/WNET New York., and Rounder 2003.
  • “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” Capitol records, 1972, liner notes by The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (Jeff Hanna, John McEuen, Jimmie Fadden).

Philip Gerard is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina: Hatteras Light and Cape Fear Rising. He is chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. His latest book, The Patron Saint of Dreams, was just published by Hub City Press. He is also the author of Our State’s Civil War series, the latest edition of which appears on page 54.

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Gerard is the author of Our State’s Civil War series. He has published fiction and nonfiction in numerous other magazines, and is the author of two historical novels set in North Carolina. He is the chairman of the department of creative writing at the University of North Carolina at Wilmington. He lectures widely on the art and craft of writing history-based stories. His book, Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life, is a standard in college classrooms across the country.