Doc can be said to be the greatest folk performer of all. He was 100% musical… everything he played and sang was clear with full tone, perfectly timed, and just plain sounded good. I heard him at his last gig ever… Merlefest this year, and sat behind him and the group on stage. Doc’s hands and voice were in great shape, but his mental decline showed.
It was probably just about 50 years earlier I’d first seen and heard Doc Watson, among the lucky ones who heard some of his earliest road gigs in New York City. At Gerde’s Folk City a venue in Greenwich Village, Doc amazed us all and touched our hearts.
Doc’s versatility and depth as a musician were quite amazing to me. He knew more verses of some songs than I knew existed, and he had a gigantic repertoire.
But the man himself was in some ways even more impressive than the musician. He maintained a very human, thoughtful and gracious persona both on and off stage. For a person born to illiterate parents, and with only a few years of schooling, he was so strikingly cultivated in the way he spoke.
I got to have many conversations with him over the years, though it took me a while to realize how to get on his level. After having a number of tries at “fan conversations”…. “You’re so great, your music means so much to me” etc. I finally connected with him talking about other things. Our first at-length conversation was about…. believe it or not… shirts. He was quite chatty about that, and was clearly more at home being “just a guy” than “a legend”.
Once the ice was broken, and he’d remember me from one time to the next, it was much easier. I still remember one time he called me Brother Pete. That was cool! We talked about all sorts of stuff. In one conversation when I mentioned evolution, he swiftly and sternly corrected me, clearly not believing in such a thing. I let that one go… no way I was going to tussle with him about evolution! And his (Jewish) agent, Mitch Greenhill, and I had a little chuckle recounting a time when I was there and Doc worked on Mitch for a while urging him to read the gospels.
One thing he was amazingly good at was running a jam session when surrounded by as many as 10 musicians. He was super-aware of the sounds around him, even if he didn’t know who was playing. He’d just say, “Let’s hear some fiddle now” right at the right time, and he could pull off that sort of spontaneity quite readily even in front of a large audience. Of course the musicians were super-tuned into him, so they could react quickly.
Once I was in a big jam with him at Merlefest when T Michael Coleman wasn’t there, so someone asked me to stick next to him and help him as needed. He asked me who was on stage and I told him, and he took it from there. I felt especially honored to be valuable to him that way.
There was just one time I heard him cuss, when I asked after his first set at a festival how the sound on stage was. After he told me (!), I brought the sound man over to talk to him, and the sound guy was very concerned to make it right for the second set, which he did. I was surprised that Doc didn’t make this effort himself, but came to realize he was so used to sound problems on stage he had given up trying to work it out and was prepared to just tough it through, as he must have done innumerable times.
Something that must have been strange for him sometimes was to be in situations where he didn’t know who was in the room with him. The year after Merle died, in the backstage trailer at a festival, he started having a pretty personal conversation with Jethro Burns about Merle and his problems, and his own grieving about his son — and several of us besides Jethro were there, knowing the conversation was intended to be just one-on-one. At the time I was not too well-acquainted with Doc, nor were others there, but no one left the trailer, the only air-conditioned place at this festival in Texas in July. So we just stayed silent and let them have their conversation. That was awkward, and I came to realize that Doc was regularly in such situations.
The poor man spent most of his last year alone, with his wife in a nursing home due to a stroke that left her unable to speak. As a blind person at 88, with failing abilities, this must have been especially hard to bear. When I spoke with him the last time, a month before he passed, he ached with loneliness for Rosalie. When I heard that he died, it didn’t make me anywhere near as sad as thinking of him in his grief and loneliness.
But Doc had a wonderful life. Though he often said he would have been glad to stay home and be a local musician, I know he really enjoyed and was proud of his performing career, and loved playing with the world-class musicians who were eager to be there with him. Coming off stage from that last show I saw, he was in a happy mood, humming to himself, and relishing how well one of the numbers went. No denying the travel over that 50 years must have been hard, but the music couldn’t have been better.
What gifts he gave us! Deep River Blues is worthy of being in any time capsule for what human beings could accomplish on this planet.