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Remembering Doc Watson, Who Moved Guitar Pickin’ to Center Stage

May 30, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Music legend Doc Watson died Tuesday at age 89. While he didn't record an album until his 40s, his guitar-playing and singing helped define and influence the sound of folk and bluegrass music for several generations. Jeffrey Brown and Katy Daley, host of WAMU's "Bluegrass Country" discuss the blind guitar legend's legacy.

JEFFREY BROWN: And finally tonight, we remember music legend Doc Watson, who died last night at age 89.

He was born and lived most of his life in Deep Gap, North Carolina, became blind as an infant, and didn’t record an album until his 40s. But Watson’s guitar-playing and singing helped define and influence the sound of folk and bluegrass music for several generations.

Here he is in two clips, first at the beginning of his recording career and later at his home in 1972 with banjo great Earl Scruggs and members of their families.


JEFFREY BROWN: And with me now is Katy Daley, host of a daily program on “Bluegrass Country,” a music broadcast on WAMU Radio here in Washington, D.C.

Katy, we were watching those performances. And you see the famous picking. Tell us about the picking styles that he was famous for.

KATY DALEY, WAMU, “Bluegrass Country”: Well, first, finger picking, but also for flat picking.

And I’m so glad that you included that clip with Earl, because Doc did for the guitar what Earl did for the banjo. They took those instruments out of rhythm section and made them lead instruments.

Up until then, the guitar had just been a rhythm instrument. And with his. . .

JEFFREY BROWN: Sort of backup, huh?

KATY DALEY: Yes, just a backup instrument.

And he really started the template for bluegrass, old-time and folk music as a lead instrument.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, this was the music he grew up with, this mountain music.


JEFFREY BROWN: But he took it out to a wider audience. How did he do that? How did he get discovered?

KATY DALEY: Well, he was discovered by Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian, who in fact helped Bill Monroe restart his career. And Ralph told him, unplug that guitar, throw that electric guitar away that you’re using.

JEFFREY BROWN: Which he was playing for a while. Right?

KATY DALEY: He was playing in a country band. And go on the road.

And Ralph was able to book him into different folk festivals and colleges and things. And he became an instant hit.

JEFFREY BROWN: He became a kind of authenticity to folk music at the time in the early ’60s, right?

KATY DALEY: Right. And right up until the end, he was authentic. Boy, he was North Carolina, the stories, the accent, the music.

His longtime playing partner David Holt said he could take a new song and make it sound ancient and take an old song and put a new twist on it.

JEFFREY BROWN: When I first saw him, as I suspect for many people who saw him, it was with his longtime partner, his son Merle. I didn’t realize Merle had started playing as a young boy, 15.

KATY DALEY: I think he hid it from his dad. Maybe Doc was on the road and came home.


JEFFREY BROWN: He didn’t know how old his son was — or his playing.

KATY DALEY: Didn’t know that Merle was playing. And then they went on the road together and played together I believe from ’64 to ’85, when Merle was killed tragically in a tractor accident.

JEFFREY BROWN: And so what was that partnership like?

KATY DALEY: Well, you know, I worked with Doc a few times, introducing him at Wolf Trap and other venues.

And I never heard Merle talk, so I can’t tell you, but, boy, could they make music together.

JEFFREY BROWN: Yes. When Merle did die, one of the things that Doc Watson did was found the MerleFest in his honor, right, which has become a huge thing.

KATY DALEY: MerleFest.

JEFFREY BROWN: Tell us about that.

KATY DALEY: I think it’s in about its 25th year. And Doc was there in April and did perform a few songs.

It has — it swells the town of Wilkesboro. About 80,000 participants show up, 90 bands, all different styles, because Doc really was embraced and cherished by country, by folk, by bluegrass, by rockabilly, the blues. He could do it all.

JEFFREY BROWN: What was he like as a person and performer?

KATY DALEY: Well, he was very quiet and humble, and — but I don’t think you could say that about his playing. His attack has been described as fierce.

And it really was Doc who laid down the template for these different styles, to be a flat picker, a lead instrument.

JEFFREY BROWN: And you have got the last word here on his legacy. How do you think he will be remembered?

KATY DALEY: With love.


All right, Katy Daley, thanks so much for joining us.

KATY DALEY: Thank you.

JEFFREY BROWN: And there’s more online, including an interview with Doc Watson done by my colleague Mike Melia last year. You will find that on our home page.