Remembering Doc

Article Published: May. 31, 2012 | Modified: May. 31, 2012
Remembering Doc

Doc Watson at Cove Creek School.

Photo by Jeff Eason

Last month my wife, Leslie, and I moved from Boone onto some family land in Deep Gap.

Strictly speaking, it is located in the heart of downtown Triplett. But ever since Stewart Simmons' general store, ham house and post office closed in Triplett 25 years ago, everyone down in that valley has had a Deep Gap address.

In Watauga County, Deep Gap is known for great fishing holes, Wildcat Flea Market and some of the most beautiful areas of the Blue Ridge Parkway.

Worldwide, however, Deep Gap, N.C., is known for exactly one thing: being the lifelong home of legendary musician Doc Watson.

Doc Watson died this past Tuesday night from complications after undergoing abdominal surgery at Baptist Hospital in Winston-Salem.

Doc was 89 years old, and had been hospitalized for more than a week, so his death didn't necessarily come as a shock to his fans or his fellow Wataugans.

The pain of our loss, however, is not lessened by his age or his health and will only grow more acute when MusicFest in Sugar Grove and MerleFest roll around again and are held without him.

The first time I ever encountered Doc was in the late 1970s, not long after my family moved to Triplett. He was not performing at the time. Instead, he was with his wife, Rosa Lee, picking out a television set at Farmer's Hardware in downtown Boone.

Blind since infancy, Watson was going over the TV set with his hands, turning the knobs and adjusting the volume to his liking.

Not long after that, I saw him perform for the first time. I couldn't tell you what songs he played except for "Deep River Blues."

I was fascinated with the way he played those intricate guitar lines while he sang "Let it rain, let it pour, let it rain a whole lot more."

I spent many an hour during my senior year of high school figuring out how to play that song.
A sporadic songwriter, Watson was known more as an interpreter of songs, most in a genre he dubbed "folk-plus." Whenever asked what the "plus" was, Doc answered that it was whatever he felt like playing.

He backed up that quote over the years by taking on gospel, pop tunes and even classic rock songs such as the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin."

As an interpreter, he made many a songwriter proud, playing and recording the ultimate versions of songs such as "Nine Pound Hammer," "Shady Grove," "Columbus Stockade Blues" and "Tennessee Stud."

For a public figure and eight-time Grammy Award winner, Watson was an extremely private person, rarely giving interviews.

His good buddy, Tommy Walsh, managed to coax Doc into holding a yearly press conference at the Cove Creek School the week before the annual Music in Sugar Grove Festival.

I was privileged to attend this press conference every year and was always surprised by Watson's wit and by the way he would remember us from year to year.

Doc always insisted that reporters use a tape recorder to get accurate quotes. The story I heard was that early in his career as a folk musician in the 1960s, he had been misquoted on numerous occasions by writers intent on making him sound like an Appalachian hillbilly, something he was decidedly not.

Elegant and articulate, Doc's speech was formed by his intense curiosity and religious upbringing and he never sounded like a character from "The Andy Griffith Show," no matter how much that would have pleased the press.

He was usually pretty guarded during these interviews, but occasionally he would tell us personal stories about the time as a boy he ran away from the North Carolina School for the Blind in Raleigh and hitchhiked back to his Deep Gap home.

And there was always a moment during these interviews where Doc would remind us to remember his son, Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985.

More than 25 years after his death, you could see how much the man missed his son and musical partner every time he spoke of him.

Two years after Merle's death, Doc and a group of Merle's friends and fellow musicians decided to hold a concert in his memory at Wilkes Community College.

That original event, held one afternoon and evening using a flatbed truck as a stage, has grown into one of the biggest music festivals in the United States.

With Doc as its unofficial host, MerleFest is an annual tradition for tens of thousands of music lovers and the list of performers who have played there includes Dolly Parton, Alison Krauss, Elvis Costello, Randy Travis and many, many others. MerleFest was one place where Doc truly felt at home, in the company of other musicians who understood what it was like to travel, perform and try to make a living with a guitar and a song. Musicians have their own language and their own little inside jokes. I remember one time at MerleFest when Doc was sitting in with a Cajun band from Louisiana. One of the musicians was wearing a washboard vest that he used as a percussion instrument by running thimbles on his fingers over it.

Between songs, Doc asked him, "Gary, what key is that washboard in?"

The response was "I think it's an 'F,' Doc."

Doc said, "Well, I better get my cheater," as he reached for the capo on the head of his guitar.
Totally unnoticed by the crowd, it was an inside joke among musicians, one that had the whole stage laughing.

As a writer for The Mountain Times for the past 15 years, I have been privileged to be in Doc's company more than my fair share of times. I was asked to take photos at his 89th birthday last March at a small celebration with Doc's family and friends at Pepper's restaurant. Everybody laughed, told stories, ate cake and had a good old time.

As we gather over the next few days to pay tribute to Doc, I hope we remember to laugh, tell stories and have a good time like we did in March.

And somebody remember to bring a guitar.

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