In the wake of Doc’s passing, I thought I should share this story about the one and only time I met him personally.
It was the mid-late 90’s, and I had been living in Boone, NC for a year or so. I was probably about 21, and I had been singing tenor with the Springhouse Farm Choir, a small sort of avant garde/traditional choir based out of Valle Crucis, a few miles outside Boone. A couple of my parent’s old college friends lived there in a big old farmhouse, and also headed up the choir. Now, a lot of very interesting people came through the doors of that farmhouse over the years, and it was a sort of social hub for a wide range of individuals and groups, from local farmer types to older hippie types and everything in between. It was a great place to hang out, and you just never knew who would show up or what might happen.
Sometime before I had made the scene there, an Irishman named Ronnie had hooked up with the Farm, and he would come every summer with his traditional Irish band and they would go to the old time and bluegrass festivals and fiddler’s conventions, resting and lodging at the Farm between festivals. They were a lively crowd, and the late night music was great. I was playing at the time, although not professionally by any means, and we would play and sing and drink late into the night. It was all great fun, and they were fantastic musicians. Later I found out that they had been attempting to meet up with Doc for several years during their visits, and it had never worked out until this particular night.
It seems silly to me now, but I didn’t know who Doc Watson was, really. I knew he was sort of a local legend, and I knew people seemed to love and respect him. I also knew that he had some connection to the folk revival in the 60’s but that was about it. These half dozen Irishmen knew more about him than I did, and I lived 4 or 5 miles down the road from his house. I also knew the normal crowd got pretty excited when word got around that he had accepted the invitation to one of the music parties out at the farmhouse. I still didn’t know what it meant, but it sounded like it was going to be a pretty good party out there no matter who came, so I was in!
So that evening, maybe 50 or 60 people were gathered in the living room of this farmhouse, a large wooden room with very high, probably 12 foot ceilings, where most of the musical performances were held there. Doc arrived, and sat in a chair in the back of the room by the fireplace while the Irish band was playing mostly traditional tunes. The first thing I remember noticing was that within the first few notes of each tune they would start, Doc would yell out “Old Joe”, or whatever the tune was, with a huge grin on his face, slapping his leg in time with the music. He was clearly enjoying himself, and seemed to know every song they played. I only later began to learn about the crossover between our traditional mountain music and the Scots-Irish musical heritage, but it was demostrated to me that night for the first time.
The Irishmen took a break, and I was asked to come play a song or two. Thank goodness I didn’t know enough to be scared, or I would have been petrified. So I marched up to the front there and played some ridiculous song I’d written with a friend about some late night drinking adventure we’d had. It was a rhythmic tune, though, and Doc was slapping his knee to that just like he had to the band. When I had finished he asked, “Who wrote that song, son?”, and when I said that I had written it, he said “Sounds like some of my adventures when I was a boy!” and laughed.
The Irishmen came back and played some more, and asked Doc to play with them, but he declined, preferring just to listen for the moment. But then a little later he agreed to play a few tunes by himself, and took a seat at the front of the room. As he started to play, it’s like the top just blew right off of my head. It was amazing. There had been half a dozen Irishmen playing their hearts out in that room just a few minutes before, with fiddle, flute, bodhran, mandolin, at least one guitar, and a concertina, shouting and stomping, but I swear to you that there was more music bouncing around in that wooden room from this one man than when they were all playing. I was just transfixed. I remember that he played “In the Jailhouse Now”, and a few other songs, but I can’t remember which ones. He sang beautifully, and yodeled for us, but what I remember the most was his guitar work.
There have been two times in my adult (and I use that term loosely) life that seeing someone play an acoustic guitar live has completely changed the way I approach the instrument. One was a few years later, and is another story entirely, but the first, and most important, was this night when I met Doc Watson and saw him play solo in a farmhouse in Valle Crucis. I was not familiar with cross picking, or even that familiar with flatpicking at all, but I can’t imagine a better introduction to the craft. It was incredible. The energy I felt from that man was overwhelming and unforgettable. I remember two things clearly from that night. The first was the realization that the amount of music and connection and energy that a performer wields and conveys has nothing to do with volume or how many members in the band. Doc singlehandedly blew a fantastically talented full Irish band out of the water right in front of me. And the second thing I remember is the realization that I have no idea how to play a guitar. I could strum and flap a little melody line out here and there, but I was suddenly back to square one. And it felt more like square zero.
The rest of the evening is a blur. Doc went home, and the party continued late into the night. I think everyone there was a bit awestruck, even the folks who had known what to expect. Only in hindsight, and really only now writing this, do I recognize what an amazing experience and gift that was. I will never forget it.
So did Doc Watson change my life that night? I don’t know how melodramatic I want to be about it at the moment, but there was a sharp pivot in my concept of traditional mountain music and guitar playing in particular that night. I turned a corner I didn’t know was there onto a street I didn’t know existed because of a blind man I’d barely heard of who lived right down the road from me. The spark that was lit by Doc that evening has led me to all kinds of guitar players and traditional music that I would not have sought out had it not been for that chance encounter. And I know for a fact that that is true for thousands if not millions of people around the world. While people all over the planet have been introduced to Appalachian music by Doc Watson, he introduced me to the music that had been all around me the whole time that I’d just never noticed.
I never spoke to Doc again, although I saw him from time to time at festivals and events there in the High Country. He was the kind of famous person that people respected enough to not bother or accost even when you did see him out in public. He was just there, and we all knew it. I think one of the things that was so endearing about Doc was that he was the genuine article through and through. He was the real deal, and that is hard to come by these days. There is no doubt that we have lost a national treasure with Doc’s passing, but I believe he is gone because his work was done. And what a body of work that is! There is not an acoustic or americana or country or celtic or bluegrass picker out there today who has not been influenced by the great Doc Watson, and he’ll live on in every one of them one way or another.
And that night will live on in me forever. I’m no Doc Watson, and I never will be. But I’m a better guitar player, and hence a better musician, and hence a better human for having met him that night.
I can’t think of the words to thank someone for that kind of gift. But in its simplest possible form:
Thank you, Doc.