Down with Doc in Sugar Grove
With a sly grin and a steady foot tap, Doc Watson, that good ole boy from Deep Gap, captured another audience: This one decidedly smaller than the MerleFest crowd.
Tuesday was media day at the old Cove Creek High School. Watson was multitasking: Picking with budding bluegrass acts Sweetbriar Jam and the Major Sevens, while promoting the 13th annual MusicFest 'n Sugar Grove and, to the cluster of journalists and musicians gathered in the wooden room, he created an experience they'll remember, full of anecdotes, memories and, of course, bluegrass.
"I've been in the business too long, and I don't like to brag on myself," he said. "People love me for being who I am on the stage, and I appreciate that very much, as much as what I can do. If I come to hear you play and you are yourself up there, if I'm enjoying you as much as your music, I'm giving you a compliment, and they tell me that's what I do on the stage. I'm being myself, and I'm kind of proud of that. I don't have to rehearse it."
To musicians he picked with Tuesday, it was one of those career life changers. Take the Major Sevens' Brooks Forsyth, practically panting following his set alongside the legend.
"Doc Watson is one of my biggest influences," he said. "It's surreal to have this as a reality ... it's a real experience to simply play, say 3 feet from Doc Watson. The moment where I had literally felt like I jumped up ... is when I looked over and saw Doc Watson's foot tapping."
Forsyth was so flustered, he accidentally walked away with Watson's guitar case.
"I can't believe I did that," he laughed.
His Major Sevens cohort, Stewart Owens, grew up in Deep Gap and jammed at the age of 12 with Watson at Wildcat Flea Market. The 23-year-old grew up and couldn't wipe the grin off his face Tuesday.
"Seeing Doc now, versus then, he seems to be the same guy," he said.
And, while Watson gives off the "regular Joe" chuckle, there's nothing regular about his picking style.
"It sounds like I have two guitars, don't it?" Watson joked while playing.
It's the technique that 13-year-old budding guitarist and Sweetbriar Jam staple Nick Seymour watched.
"It's overwhelming," he said. "Doc's just a great guitarist, a great musician ... a living legend. It's just a thrill for me."
Watson, oblivious to the hero worship, just kept on picking his way through songs like "Keep on the Sunnyside," with lyrics that seem to emulate his optimism - optimism, mind you, that comes in the face of lifelong blindness, failing hearing and declining health.
"If you're 87 years old and you've been blessed in many ways, to walk around without a cane or something like that, and I can still sing a little, my voice is still pretty good. And if you've been blessed in many ways, don't complain too much about the failing hearing," he said with a smile.
Watson is used to adversity. After all, at the age of 14, he cleared an acre and a half of land with his father, a remarkable feat if you're not blind.
"I'll never forget how proud I felt when I finished that job," he said. "They growed potatoes on that little hillside we cleared till they wore the ground out."
Seventy-three years later, he continues to defy what's expected, and not only that, but help others in the process.
Take a benefit he played earlier this year in Wilkesboro, raising money for Haitian earthquake victims.
"Lots of people came to that," he said. "That tickled me awful good."
While he may be blind, he's not entirely deaf, and couldn't help hearing what he called "holier than thou people" reacting to the quake, characterizing the tragedy as a punishment by God for heretical beliefs.
"Those people," as he calls them, seem to be the only thing that can fade that smile from Watson's face.
"That's bull ... how many innocent children were killed? You think God allowed that? They don't think of God the way I do," he said.
To Watson, the Haitian earthquake was a test, a test of mankind's love for one another and ability to support each other, even during the unthinkable, and Watson couldn't stand on the side lines.
His drive to help others is part of the reason he returns to Sugar Grove every year.
That, and "it's close to home," he said.
The MusicFest supports Cove Creek Preservation and Development Inc., which, in turn, funds the Doc and Rosa Lee Watson Scholarship, issued to area students studying sustainable development at Appalachian State University.
"That will help a lot of young folks, it will," he said.
To that end, he, along with organizers, are hoping for the biggest turnout ever at MusicFest.
"If you do a good show somewhere, and you have a great audience, it kind of sticks out above the shows you've done in, oh, the last month or two," he said.
Officials at MusicFest hope the crowds July 9 and 10 will stick out. For more information or a complete lineup, check out http://www.musicfestnsugargrove.org.