In Memory of Doc Watson, 1923-2012

Sad news in the folk and bluegrass music world, as 7-time Grammy winner Arthel Lane ‘Doc’ Watson passed away due to complications from surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was an amazing flat-picker and played for generations of folk fans, including the 3rd Bonnaroo in 2004. Here, we present a review of Doc Watson’s final Capital Region performance from The Egg in Albany, NY on August 1st, 2010. RIP Doc Watson.

(Originally published in NYS Music, Vol 3, Issue 7)

Update 6/3/12 – A recording of this show has surfaced. Take a listen here

The first time I saw Doc Watson was in 2004 at Bonnaroo on the recommendation of Trey Anastasio who remarked in the program that Doc was one of the few acts he was dying to see. Having never heard of Doc Watson, I thought, “Well, if it’s good enough for Trey, it’s good enough for me”. I was not disappointed and I even had a chance to chat with mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush before he headed on stage to play a couple of tunes with Doc.

photo by Dave Conlin Read

This performance was a bit more subdued from a tent stage playing to 5,000 sweaty 20-somethings. Instead, there were around 800 fans in attendance averaging around 40-50 years old with a few younger fans sprinkled throughout. Since I had last seen him, Doc Watson received a lifetime achievement award, predated by his 3-disk biographical album Legacy that won him one of his seven Grammys in 2002 for Best Traditional Folk Album. This collection is worth listening to if you want to acclimate yourself to this bluegrass legend.

With Doc Watson on guitar, T Michael Coleman on bass, David Holt on guitar/banjo and later, Doc’s grandson Richard Watson on guitar, the two 50-minute sets were a trip through American Roots music history. Songs were played that will one day be forgotten in time and were so old that that they bridge the gap from the 19th century to the 21st century in both their meanings and history. Doc Watson teaches this music to us like a non-activist Pete Seeger.

Still playing at 87 years old, Doc was born Arthel Lane Watson with the nickname ‘Doc’ given to him as a replacement for his stuffy birth name. While he may be blind, this does not define him. His music does. The only indication of his lack of sight is that of him being led to his seat on the stage. This does not hold him back in any form nor has it ever seemed to be more than a footnote to his musical legacy.

The songs over the course of the night gave a wide range of bluegrass and other blues-rooted music. The Carter Family song “Cannonball” which has its roots in English folk. “Feel Like Cryin’ Since She’s Gone” got the audience involved for the first of many sing-a-longs. The classic “Sittin’ On Top of the World” featured Holt on slide guitar with Doc singing a tune we all know from either The Grateful Dead or Cream or any number of acts that have made this song their own. Lyrics like “now she’s gone and I don’t worry” can resonate with so many different people that dozens of versions are the result.

The 2nd set featured various solo tunes from Doc, with his southern hills dialect from North Carolina that has a distinct drawl on the I’s which makes each song sound that much more personal and a hesitation of ‘aih’ every so often, giving an extra breath and half per measure throughout the night. Every so often, Doc called out to his guitar to ‘behave now’, while he was prepping for the next tune. It may have been the equipment, but it all seemed to be part of Doc’s character.

“Freight Train” by Elizabeth Cotten elicited a proud response from the crowd that knew the roots of this song. Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times” was slow and not as uplifting as the original and was nearly somber at points. “Big Bouquet of Roses (for every time you broke my heart)” continued the trend by telling us a story in each verse. “T for Texas, T for Tennessee”, a classic tune of Watson’s, was a great treat for the entire audience.

The rest of the ensemble returned for “Walk On” and the quartet provided the best tunes of the night. Some tunes in bluegrass are just arranged and meant to be played by multiple strings. “I Am a Pilgrim” by Merle Travis and “Frankie and Johnny”, a sweethearts song, were crowd-pleasers for those familiar with Doc’s catalog. “Workin’ Man’s Blues” was the most upbeat song of the night thanks to bass playing from the youngest Watson on stage.

A personal treat was “In the Pines”, a song that dates back to the 1870s. This song has the same musical/lyrical roots as ‘Where Did You Sleep Last Night?” (also known as “Black Girl”) and was made popular again by folk troupe Leadbelly in the 1940s and again by Nirvana on their Unplugged album recorded in 1993. This version was a bit more upbeat and happier than the pain and suffering ingrained in the song’s lyrics.

Sunday night services ended around 9:30 p.m. with Mississippi John Hurt’s “Blues for the Banjo” which had great lines that all can identify with:

“I get the blues but I can’t be satisfied….
I need a shot of whiskey to drive the blues away…
I think I’ll need a quart today”

The crowd headed home smiling and content knowing that they had seen a living bluegrass legend play great songs that were both known and already forgotten. This was a masterfully guided trip through American bluegrass and blues roots.