Life After Doc
When his classics are re-voiced by homegrown bluegrass bands, bleached country-pop, or the young student with unsure but eager hands, the person of Doc Watson is released to adopt the listener.
Watson’s flatpicking mimics a one-man band. The analogous tenor and bass ring and pop as his fingers multiply to play six strings like one fiddle strain. He likened this to no more than “country pickin’”; authentic in his heyday of ’60s protest songs and souring folk. With squinting eyes, he played the guitar as an athletically developed extra limb.
Two music festivals, Music Fest ’n Sugar Grove (July 13 and 14) and MerleFest are centered on the person of Doc Watson. Begun in 1998 after Watson won Asheville’s Man of the Year Award, every second Saturday of July was proclaimed to be Doc Watson Appreciation Day.
“Word got out,” festival founder and director Tommy Walsh said. “My phone was ringing off the hook. People came from all over.”
He remembers the surprise of his fellow board member, Dr. Pat Long, when they caught Doc playing with locals at Davidson Store in Mountain City, Tenn., before the concert.
“Doc asked Dr. Long if he knew how to pick,” Walsh said. “Dr. Long said ‘Yes, sir, but I don’t have my guitar.’ Doc said, ‘Get you one of those over there, son, and sit down here and pick with me.’”
“The first time I saw him on stage at MusicFest, he just got up there and said, ‘Hey, everybody, I’m just me, nobody special. Just glad I can sit with y’all here,’” MusicFest intern Willard Watson III said. “And this giant burly guy that had driven up on a motorcycle got up and screamed ‘I love you, Doc!’ with tears streaming down his eyes.”
Watson beamed to give away scholarships and play benefit shows for charities and people in need. Willard Watson said that MusicFest will continue to promote what Doc lived for – “love, humility, and generosity.”
“Doc only spoke ill of those who disrespected women and children,” he said. “He was a true patriot. Those squirrel-hide shoes are impossible to fill.”
“It’ll go along,” Walsh said of the festival. “I had lunch with him on the Friday before he fell. He said he wanted to play on Friday and Saturday. He said, ‘I enjoy that festival.’ See, a lot of these bands have been influenced by Doc Watson. That’s why they’re picking instruments. Folks who remember will keep it going. Nobody in the world could replace him. That’s the way he’s done it. But we’ll carry on.”
Ted Hagaman, director of MerleFest, assures that “MerleFest will never lose its focus on the values and wishes of Doc and Rosa Lee.”
He said that it will continue to invite a diversity of musicians, particularity Watson’s friends who played on stage with him, to perform for a family friendly environment.
“I had the privilege of visiting in Doc’s house many times to listen to stories about his upbringing,” Hagaman said. “His dad wouldn’t let Doc use his handicap as a handicap, and he had chores like the rest. In a way, it instilled in him that he was to continue on and do things right. His wife, Rosa Lee, had so much influence on him, always at his side.
“His last set on Sunday morning for what we call ‘the Spirit of Sunday’ was the last performance that he had before he passed,” Hagaman said. “It was appropriate because it reflects his strong faith. His spirit will still be here. The footprint that he has made through the years will always be here.”