June 20, 2006

Down from the mountain: Doc Watson returns to Louisville

BY KEVIN M. WILSONAmericana legend Arthel “Doc” Watson holds an honorary (though arguably hard-earned) doctorate in Folk Arts from the University of North Carolina, his home state. Interestingly enough, that distinction came long after the nickname was permanently affixed to his Christian name. Watson explains that the nickname was completely accidental. “Me and this other fella were doing a live radio show for WHKY out of Hickory, and the announcer mentioned that he wanted an easier name to call me, so some woman stood up and yelled ‘call ’em Doc’ and it stuck. I was 18 at the time.” Even at such a tender age, Watson was known in certain circles to possess one of the smoothest baritone voices around — not to mention an exceptional talent for flat-picking the guitar. What made his skill truly extraordinary is the fact that Watson, the victim of an optical birth defect and a devastating eye infection, completely lost his vision in infancy. To his credit, Watson quickly adapted to the harshness of life and simply learned to utilize his other senses. Relying primarily upon his auditory system, Watson boasts, “In my younger days, I could hear birds singing a half-mile away. Ears are the eyes of the blind man, you see.”Despite his remarkable musical and storytelling abilities, it would be quite some time before this national treasure was unearthed by mainstream America. The major discovery was finally made when Watson was nearly 40 years old. He recalls in amazement the way it all came about. “I wanted to have a musical vocation as a young man, but it didn’t happen until the early 1960s. At that point I desperately needed to do something more to support my family, and out of nowhere this musicologist came along and said, ‘Doc, you have the potential to become an entertainer in the Folk Revival.’ At the time I couldn’t imagine the masses listening to ‘Little Orphan Boy’ or ‘Pretty Polly.’” Luckily for Watson, there was, in fact, a real demand for his authentic Appalachian cultural craft. He would no longer languish in obscurity.Watson was embraced by the emerging counterculture, in part because of his ties to other more subversive folk artists of the day, but he never bought into much of what was “blowin’ in the wind” in the ’60s. As he puts it, “I’m just regular people trying to make a go of life.” As such, he “never got into protesting.” Watson remembers the political climate well and the fact that “lots of people got in trouble because so much of that scene was oriented towards communism … I wasn’t into that at all. But I did like ol’ Bob Dylan. He was a very friendly fella, and a friend to my son Merle.”It was in the mid-’60s that Merle Watson first joined his father onstage. They soon became inseparable, and each Watson profoundly influenced the other. The two would remain performance partners until the younger Watson’s tragic and fatal farming accident in 1985. Every April since 1988, legions of friends, fans and family have come together to celebrate his legacy at the enormously popular Merlefest gathering in Wilksboro, N.C.Over the years, and in spite of a number of personal setbacks, the elder Watson has endured with dignity and assurance. Always keeping himself busy, he still tours consistently and has recorded scores of important albums in a variety of genres. Watson has famously dabbled in folk, blues, rockabilly, bluegrass and gospel. It is the definitely the latter that sustained him when the road was rough and rocky. Watson insists that, “Christianity is truth, not religion. To me, truth walked this earth and went to the cross, and it’s that truth that brings a man inner peace to get through the hard times. I’m a changed man because of Jesus.”For his efforts and perseverance, Watson has been honored with multiple Grammy Awards, the National Medal of Arts and the aforementioned honorary doctorate. At the ripe old age of 83, he’s had time to reflect on his many accomplishments and feels perfectly comfortable offering words of wisdom to young pickers: “Whatever style you’re doing, keep the music as pure as you can. When you play a song, live that song. And as for talent, God probably gave you some of that to start with, but believe you me, brother, practice is where it’s at!”Contact the writer at leobeat@leoweekly.com