A Year-Round Guide to Franklin and Nantahala

If it weren’t for the cast of characters, the old house in the black-and-white photograph wouldn’t be much to look at. Crowded together on the creaky plank front porch are

Rosemary and Goat Cheese Strata

If it weren’t for the cast of characters, the old house in the black-and-white photograph wouldn’t be much to look at. Crowded together on the creaky plank front porch are

If it weren’t for the cast of characters, the old house in the black-and-white photograph wouldn’t be much to look at. Crowded together on the creaky plank front porch are 12 people from two Appalachian bloodlines — the Watsons and the Carltons — all gathered for an extended-family snapshot. Some are standing and holding musical instruments; others, mostly kids, are sitting and looking like they’d rather be anywhere but here. Front and center among the children, just to the left of her brother, Merle, is 11-year-old Nancy Watson, barefoot and wearing a plaid skirt and white top.

Nancy remembers that day at her family’s home in the tiny Watauga County community of Deep Gap as if it were yesterday. “I was making a funny face,” she says with a chuckle, “because I didn’t know they were going to use that picture for the cover.”

The 1963 album The Watson Family

The classic 1963 album The Watson Family. photograph by Joey Seawell

The cover that Nancy, now 72, is referring to is an album called The Watson Family. Released in 1963, it’s a survey of traditional ballads and fiddle tunes from northwestern North Carolina, an area that music scholar Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian Institution once described as “one of the richest repositories of folk song and lore in the southeastern United States.”

The adults in the photo include Nancy’s maternal grandfather, Gaither Carlton, a well-known regional old-time fiddler since the ’20s; her paternal grandmother, Annie Watson; and her mother, Rosa Lee Watson, both of whom possessed rich and honeyed mountain drawls that put the heartache in the family’s songs of struggle and faith; and Nancy’s father, Arthel Lane Watson, whom everybody called “Doc.”

Merle, Rosa Lee, and Doc Watson perform

Merle, Rosa Lee, and Doc Watson. photograph by Joey Seawell

Though he was loath to admit it, Doc Watson — blind since childhood, but with hands that could wire houses, saw wood, and play the guitar like nobody’s business — would eventually rise above all the others. That’s because when Doc put a flat pick to the strings of an acoustic guitar, he redefined the instrument’s role in folk music. In his hands, the acoustic guitar was no longer just a rhythm instrument behind a fiddle player sawing out melodies — Doc picked out the melodies on the guitar itself and played them with lightning speed.

Within a couple of years, Doc and Merle Watson would be performing rousing concerts to college students around the world and inspiring their fellow members of the American folk revival of the 1960s — from culture-shifting artists like Bob Dylan and Joan Baez to guitar whizzes like Clarence White and Tony Rice.

• • •

Just past the Mountaineer Ruritan clubhouse in the unincorporated town of Sugar Grove, Old U.S. Highway 421 splits off from the main road and winds north for about a mile. There, on the left — about 20 minutes west of Deep Gap and 10 minutes east of the North Carolina-Tennessee line — a castle-like stone building, the Old Cove Creek High School, rises majestically from a recess against a backdrop of rolling hills.

Inside, the modest life of the Watsons, the first family of North Carolina mountain music, unfolds in rare photographs; woodworking equipment; patchwork quilts; and, mostly, vintage musical instruments, vinyl records, and awards. Scattered about the two-room Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum, the exhibits — many of them, anyway — come with labels lovingly and painstakingly handwritten by Nancy herself.

Outside of Old Cove Creek High School

Inside the Old Cove Creek High School, photos of the Watsons are interwoven with keepsakes. photograph by Joey Seawell

There’s the shot of Doc, Rosa Lee, and a teenage Merle sitting on a little country stage in folding chairs, guitars in hand, mid-performance, frozen in time. “I can tell what song Mama was singing in that photo,” Nancy says, then pauses. “Oh, what’s the name of it?” She begins singing in a warm alto that conjures the voices of both her late mother and grandmother: “The big courtroom was crowded … when the judge said, ‘Guilty, son.’”

She’s recalling the words to the folk standard “I Heard My Mother Weeping,” a tragic ballad that appears on the album The Doc Watson Family Tradition. “A lot of times,” Nancy says, “there’ll be a picture of Daddy or Merle or Mama performing, and I can just look at it, and I just know what they’re playing for some reason. I don’t know how, but I do.”

Quilt that Rosa Lee Watson made for Merle Watson.

The quilt that Rosa Lee made for Merle in 1975. photograph by Joey Seawell

There’s the quilt stitched with the words, My Love is unceasing. I’ll stand by your side, be your Mother, and friend. To Merle 1975. Nancy remembers the Christmas, nearly half a century ago, when Rosa Lee made it. “The pattern is from an embroidered sampler from the 1700s,” she says. “We saw a picture of it in Early American Life magazine. Mama asked me if I could draw up the picture, said she wanted to make a quilt from it. I said, ‘Yeah, I’ll draw it up for you.’”

And then there’s the pump organ that Nancy pined for when she was a little girl. It looks just like the one that she remembered in her grandmother’s house, the one that her aunt would play while Nancy sat in her lap. Years later, Nancy’s wish came true.

“Mama and Daddy had gone riding around with some friends one weekend, and they went down to Darby” — about half an hour south of Deep Gap — “and when they come back, they said, ‘We found your birthday present today,’ said, ‘It was too big for us to get in the car, but they’re gonna bring it up next week.’ Well, that next week, I heard a pickup backing up to my little apartment, which was in Mama and Daddy’s basement. And when they unloaded that pump organ, I started to cry.”

Through memorabilia and placards handwritten by Nancy Watson, the two-room Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum paints an intimate portrait of the family that helped introduce the world to the music of western North Carolina. photograph by Joey Seawell

When Nancy thinks about all of the items that she’s donated to the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum, she doesn’t just think about her celebrated father. She also thinks about her late mother and brother. She thinks about her aunts, uncles, and grandparents on both sides of her family. She thinks about the community of musicians who’d gather at the house to play and sing. You see, the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum isn’t your typical institution dedicated to the singular accomplishments of just one music legend. And that’s because Doc Watson wasn’t your typical music legend.

Oh, he easily deserves a museum of his own. Not only did Doc create a style of flat-picking that transformed the guitar into a lead instrument in acoustic folk and bluegrass music, but he also had a warm and amiable baritone vocal style that made every member of an audience feel as if he were singing directly to them. And then, of course, there was his vast catalog of folk classics like “Tennessee Stud,” “Deep River Blues,” and “Omie Wise.”

But Doc’s legend is as intricately tied to his extended family as it is to his own extraordinary talents. In every respect, Doc Watson was part of a family. Family is what made him, and family is what this little rural museum celebrates.

• • •

Born on March 3, 1923, Arthel Watson grew up surrounded by music. His banjo-playing father, General Dixon Watson, led the singing at Mount Paran Baptist Church in Stony Fork. Around the house, his mother sang hymns and regional folk ballads like “Omie Wise,” which Doc would later record for his self-titled solo debut album of 1964.

Early on, he’d shown a natural skill on the banjo, a talent that transferred over to the guitar when he began playing one as a teenager while attending the North Carolina School for the Blind and Deaf in Raleigh. By his 20s, he was performing for change on the streets of Boone and Lenoir. At 24, he met and married Watauga County native Rosa Lee Carlton, whose father, Gaither, had a reputation across the region as a top-notch fiddler who performed alongside fellow mountain music greats Clarence Ashley, G.B. Grayson, and Al Hopkins.

In the early ’50s, Doc picked up the electric guitar and played with rockabilly bands like The Country Gentlemen and The Carolina Buddies. “And I’m telling you,” Nancy says, “he was good on that Les Paul guitar. You better believe it! He could beat any of these modern rock ’n’ roll guys all to pieces!”

Doc Watson's early banjo

Nancy Watson gave the museum a personal touch by sharing stories and memories behind items like Doc’s early banjo. photograph by Joey Seawell

Meanwhile, Rinzler of the Smithsonian Institution had been traveling down to North Carolina to check out regional music scenes. In 1960, he saw Ashley perform at the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in Union Grove and offered him a recording session. Ashley chose Doc to accompany him on banjo and guitar. When Doc showed up with his electric guitar, Rinzler encouraged him to use an acoustic instead. Doc agreed, but he performed his solos as if he were playing an electric, and the results sounded as much like those of the Black guitarists who played the Piedmont blues as they did Appalachian folk.

Soon, Rinzler had Ashley and Doc performing at clubs like Gerde’s Folk City in New York’s Greenwich Village and at the celebrated Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. Seeing Doc as the standout player, Rinzler landed him a solo deal with Vanguard Records, the label of then-popular folk singers like Joan Baez, The Weavers, and Odetta. To Rinzler, Doc brought a sense of Appalachian authenticity to a label consisting largely of records by Northern musicians who appreciated but didn’t live mountain music.

Doc’s early performances got rave reviews, and his down-home picking would influence countless singer-songwriters throughout the ’60s. By then, Merle had begun performing alongside his dad, and their live shows — documented on albums like Doc Watson on Stage featuring Merle Watson — included fiery dueling fretwork that brought audiences to their feet.

“I’ve sat on the sides of stages while they were playing,” Nancy remembers, “and I would see things, energy-wise, that happened between them and the audience. It was phenomenal! They just totally connected with one another. They gave to the audience, and the audience would give right back to them. They’d bring people up with a peppy song, make them happy and cheerful, and then play something really sad to bring people’s emotions back down. And then, after a really sad song, they’d come back with something happy again. It was like an adventure. You didn’t know how you were going to feel from song to song.”

“It was like an adventure. You didn’t know how you were going to feel from song to song.”

But in 1985, tragedy struck. Merle was killed in a tractor accident about two weeks before he and his dad were scheduled to play at Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro. “Daddy was gonna quit,” Nancy says. “He kept saying, ‘I can’t do it. I can’t do it.’ He just felt like he couldn’t go on without my brother.” A few nights later, Doc had a dream. “He said it felt like he was stuck in mud, and he couldn’t get out,” Nancy recalls. “And then Merle came, and he took Daddy by the hand, and he said, ‘Come on, Dad, I’ll help you. You can make it.’”

Doc ended up playing the gig, and the crowd went wild. “The audience just honored Daddy’s courage,” Nancy says. “And it felt like from then on, his music just took off. It just exploded. People everywhere started flocking to him. That’s when I realized how huge he’d gotten.”

Three years later, Doc launched MerleFest on the campus of Wilkes Community College, and since then, the event has served as one of the most important festivals featuring Americana music in the world. Countless artists, from the West Coast band Nickel Creek to North Carolina acts like The Avett Brothers and Carolina Chocolate Drops, got their start or got a boost in popularity by performing at MerleFest. Doc played at the festival every year until his final performance there on April 29, 2012, exactly one month before he died. He was 89.

• • •

In the corner of one room of the museum at Cove Creek sits an old wooden workbench that Doc built in 1953, and that he continued using until well into the 21st century. A hammer, an axe, and a carpenter’s square sit atop the bench alongside a photo of Doc building an addition onto his family’s home. Hanging on the wall behind the bench are two massive cross-cut saws that Nancy’s grandfather taught Doc to use when he was a little boy. It’s how Doc learned to be self-sufficient, even with his disability. It’s also how Doc learned that individuals don’t do things on their own — they do things as part of families, as communities.

Axe, ruler, and hammer are a few of Doc Watson's old carpentry tools.

Doc’s hands, lightning-fast on a guitar, were just as skilled with an axe, a hammer, and a carpenter’s square — tools, now on display at the museum, that his father taught him to use as a boy. photograph by Joey Seawell

And this is why the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum is not just about Doc. “Daddy didn’t like being put on a pedestal,” Nancy says. “When people would do that, he’d say, ‘No! I ain’t no different from you. I just happen to make my living as a musician.’” Looking back, though, she’s aware that that’s not quite true. She pauses, and in a near whisper, as if someone is listening, perhaps her dad, she adds, “But you know, he did have an extraordinary gift.”

The Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum is open by appointment. To learn more, email watsonfolkartmuseum@gmail.com or visit watsonfolkartmuseum.org.

print it