The breadth and complexity of Doc Watson’s musical legacy Inspires
four-disc retrospective album, tribute concert at Lees-McRae College
By Leslie Smith
BANNER ELK, N.C. — Doc Watson, the legendary Appalachian folk singer whose husky baritone and guitar virtuosity continues to inspire new generations, once said, “I can’t be put in a box,” referring to the diversity of genres reflected by his music. While no one would argue with that metaphorical description, a new four-disc retrospective does put 101 of Watson’s actual recordings into a box set.
The new collection, “Doc Watson – Life's Work: A Retrospective,” was released by Craft Recordings in conjunction with a Nov. 13 tribute concert in Watson’s High Country backyard at Lees-McRae College in Banner Elk. Performers included Jack Lawrence, Wayne Henderson, Jack Hinshelwood, Trevor McKenzie, and Mike Compton with the ETSU Old-Time Ramblers.
Videos by Dave Smith
The new collection explores Watson's diverse repertoire built on the influences of long-standing musical traditions and early 20th Century technology. Although Watson himself has said that he cut his teeth on traditional Appalachian music, his more than seven-decade body of work exudes and exemplifies the influences of multiple genres and presents an image of a man who simply loved all types of music. Watson won numerous Grammy Awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. Ted Olson, the producer and curator of this new box set, did not take lightly the responsibility of presenting Watson’s career and life in music. A professor of Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies at East Tennessee State University (ETSU), Olson said he wanted to make sure that every period of Watson’s life was well represented.
“I wanted to represent his guitar wizardry, banjo and harmonica mastery, versatility, refinement and passion as a singer,” Olson said. He called the project “a huge repertoire embodying and reflecting Doc’s diversity.”
As a music historian, Olson has received seven Grammy nominations for his work producing and curating several documentary albums of Appalachian music, including complete recordings from the 1927-1928 Bristol Sessions, the 1928-1929 Johnson City Sessions, and the 1929-1930 Knoxville Sessions.
Watson’s early years were spent immersed in the traditional music of his Deep Gap, North Carolina, community. His father led church congregations in hymns, and his mother sang as she worked around the house and cared for her children. Gospel and string band music was prevalent throughout his tightly knit community, but Watson enjoyed and absorbed music from well beyond his home in the northwestern North Carolina mountains. The Watson family connected with popular music through radio and records, both of which were relatively new ways to enjoy and absorb music during Watson’s youth.
At the Nov. 13 concert, performer Trevor McKenzie shared a story about how Watson’s family came to acquire one 78 rpm record that Watson most certainly played over and over until he had it memorized. It was a story song, or a ballad, titled “Otto Wood the Bandit,” originally recorded by Walter “Kid” Smith. Prior to acquiring the record, Watson might have heard the legendary story of Otto Wood, a famous outlaw born in nearby Wilkes County. Wood was known for a crime spree that was reported in newspapers across the country. According to McKenzie, who is director of the Center for Appalachian Studies at Appalachian State University, Watson had learned the version he would go on to make famous by listening to that 78 record for which his dad had bartered a boxwood tree.
During his youth and throughout his life, Watson also learned many jazz and blues songs from old 78 records. According to guitarist Jack Lawrence, who shared the stage with Watson for 27 years and was a featured performer at the tribute concert, one of Watson’s favorite blues performers was Mississippi John Hurt. Many who knew Watson well, in fact, cite Hurt as having had a particularly strong influence on the music that Watson made throughout his career. His affection for blues is reflected in the songs he chose for his albums and concerts. Stage performances provided listeners with a real taste of Americana with song lists typically including deeply felt blues pieces, lonesome mountain ballads, flat-picking leads and finger-picking melodies.
Watson performed a diverse repertoire, but it was his own roots music — Appalachian folk music — that caught the attention of folklorist Ralph Rinzler in 1960 and put Watson square in the middle of the folk music scene in Greenwich Village, New York. Yearning for music that was heartfelt and real, folk audiences instantly fell in love with Watson’s genuineness and authenticity.
An interview with David Holt, another Grammy-winning musician who performed with Watson, is included in the liner notes of the new box set. “Doc had easy access to his feelings,” Holt said, “and could make the audience feel it too.”
In describing a Doc Watson concert, Olson, who wrote the extensive liner notes, said that audiences never quite knew what Watson was going to play next. The new collection mirrors that quality by highlighting much of his best work as a master storyteller and amazing ballad singer. The box set features many of the ballads that Watson recorded from the early years of his career, songs that became quite popular and gained him much fame during the folk music revival years.
In addition to directing new focus toward the array of influences that shaped Watson’s music, the retrospective collection — through interviews with friends, family, fans and musical collaborators — presents Watson as a person of great character. “Doc Watson represented Appalachian values and traditions beautifully and he took them all over the world,” Olson said between performances at the tribute concert. “He was a great ambassador of Appalachia.”
Watson is widely credited with having elevated the guitar from a primarily rhythm instrument to one often given the lead role. Yet he remained humble throughout his career. When the city of Boone, North Carolina — located about nine miles from Watson’s home in Deep Gap — was planning to erect a life-size statue of him, he requested that the inscription read, “Doc Watson / Just one of the people.” No matter how the rest of the world viewed him, Watson considered himself as just a man who used the skills and talents that he was given.
Sharing the stage and their talents in honor of Watson, guitarists Jack Hinshelwood, Jack Lawrence and Wayne Henderson traded licks and stories during a long segment of the tribute concert. An acclaimed guitar luthier, and another traditional musician from the Blue Ridge region of North Carolina, Henderson talked about how Watson used to like to come over and hang out in Henderson’s workshop. He said they were playing music together during one of those visits when Watson demonstrated that he was skilled in other areas as well.
“He always wanted a straight-back chair to sit in to pick,” Henderson said. “I saw him feeling along the edge of that thing. … It had several holes in it. And after a while he got to feeling where it was all loose and the (cane) bottom was cracked up. He said, ‘Wayne, I need to fix this thing for you.’”
Henderson said Watson repaired the chair and brought it back two weeks later. “It’s the most beautiful caning job you’d ever see,” Henderson said. “It’s split oak, something you don’t see much anymore. …I still sit in that chair almost every day.”
Henderson said Watson was a craftsman and a perfectionist. He said he could pick up a piece of wood in Henderson’s shop, tap on it and tell what key the sound was in. “He’d tap on it and say, ‘Son, that’s like an F chord. That’ll make a good guitar.’ And I got so that whenever he’d be over there I’d bring him everything I had, and say ‘What’s this one gonna sound like?’”
Mike Compton is a master mandolin player whose Nashville Bluegrass Band played with Watson for 10 consecutive years at the annual MerleFest music festival in Wilkesboro. The festival was founded in 1988 in memory of Doc’s son and performing partner, Merle Watson, who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985. During the tribute concert, Compton shared a story that spoke to Watson’s great sense of humor. While Compton and bandmates Alan O’Bryant and Pat Enright were participating in a recording session with Watson, Compton was in a small sound room with Enright when their conversation between tracks turned to Compton’s feet.
“I had a pair of tennis shoes on that were like a pair of tennis shoes get after a few years and you would rather keep ‘em outside than in the house,” Compton said. “(Enright) would be lookin’ down at my feet and he’d go, ‘Shoo! Man, you need to throw those things away!’ And I wasn’t even thinking about whether they could hear it in the control room.”
Later, in the control room, Watson jokingly asked Compton if he'd ever thought about getting himself a good foot man. “He said, ‘I’ve got a good foot man and he’s gotten me to change the color of my socks,’” Compton said. “And then he went on and on with great detail and very considerate language about how he could be helpful about this foot problem.”
Compton shared another exchange that occurred when the Nashville Bluegrass Band was about to play a gospel song with Watson at MerleFest and Watson asked, “Boys, what are we gonna do next?” He was given the name of the song and Watson asked for the key, which was announced as F sharp.
“And Doc got this puzzled look on his face, and he didn’t say anything for a minute,” Compton said. “And then he said, ‘Why?’ “And we all busted out laughing and said, well, I guess we’ll skip that one, and we went on to the next one.”
As a 2021-22 artist in residence at ETSU, Compton leads the Old-time Ramblers, a student band in the university’s Department of Appalachian Studies, Bluegrass, Old-time, and Roots Music Program. The band was the first featured act at the tribute concert. Band members spoke of their fondness for Watson’s music and the strong influence it has had on their developing musical tastes. Old-Time Ramblers Ashley Dreyer and James Edgar performed “Your Lone Journey,” a song Watson wrote with his wife, Rosa Lee, as a reflection on the death of a loved one. It will be included on the band’s upcoming album, which shares the song title, “Your Lone Journey.” Dreyer said that while she and Edgar are from the Pacific Northwest, they each have been greatly influenced by Watson’s music.
The reach of Watson’s music was recognized in 1997 when then President Bill Clinton awarded Watson the National Medal of Arts. “There may not be a committed, serious baby boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to pick a guitar like Doc Watson,” Clinton said.
Nearly 10 years after his death, Watson and his music continue to inspire listeners and players of every generation. Among them is the 29-year-old Grammy-winning bluegrass artist Billy Strings, who does his own share of genre hopping and often cites Watson as a primary influence. Strings, the 2021 International Bluegrass Music Association Entertainer of the Year and Guitarist of the Year, dedicated a set at this year’s Newport Folk Festival in honor of Watson.
Many similar respects and appreciations are included on the retrospective album project, which includes an 88-page booklet featuring interviews with a diverse range of individuals closely aligned with Watson and his music. Also included in the booklet are track-by-track liner notes by Olson that detail where Doc learned each piece of music and what he had to say about the songs. Listeners can follow along with the annotation and learn more about Doc’s diverse repertoire and his musical influences while enjoying many illustrations and photos.
Leslie Smith is the Executive Aide for the Center of Excellence for Appalachian Studies and Services and serves as a member of Appalachian Places staff. Smith holds a Master of Arts in Liberal Studies focusing on the cultural geography of Appalachia.