Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in 1923, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson went blind before he saw his first birthday, but that didn’t keep him from greatness. Watson bought his first guitar for $10 from Sears Roebuck and taught himself how to play the Carter Family’s “When Roses Bloom in Dixieland.” Jimmie Rodgers was another early and longtime favorite and, when he played the street corners with his brother Linny, the Watson Brothers would dole out tunes by some other brother acts, most notably the Delmores, Louvins, and Monroes. Over the course of his prolific and lengthy career, Doc went on to win seven Grammy awards, plus a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
But the real, enduring testament to his legacy is that contemporary artists continue to cite him as a hero. Shawn Mullins is one such artist. Though best known for his catchy pop hit “Lullaby,” Mullins is an old-school songwriter — the kind who tells stories about the people on the fringes, the people living hard lives. On the whole, he has a lot more in common with Jason Isbell than Jason Mraz. A part of that is a commitment to studying the past while looking to the future. And one of his many areas of interest is Doc Watson.
What is it about Doc Watson that you admire most?
I guess the obvious thing is that he was blind from the time he was a baby. But the whole thing that I really enjoy and admire about him is that he kind of did what he did. It’s not that he didn’t try to grow and change, but he certainly didn’t try to change for the times once he was known for what he was known for. I don’t know if that’s because there wasn’t a choice — that would be my guess, that it was like, “This is what I do, man!” [Laughs]
But he didn’t really get popular nationally… outside of the South, he wasn’t known until the folk revival of the ’60s. He was born in the ’20s, so he was 40 by the time things really started happening and he could probably make a good living. That gives me hope, too. [Laughs] I’m kidding a little bit, but I think he’s just amazing. He only died a couple years ago. I was always hoping to meet him. I got to see him live, but I never got a chance to talk to him.
He’s just one of those pickers and singers… he’s a baritone, like me, so that’s another kinship I feel. It’s a unique way to accompany yourself the way he did. A baritone voice, it sticks out in another way than most tenor or high voices do in folk music, or any kind of music. I think the baritone voice is interesting. There are not a lot of them around. And he naturally went to a style of picking that worked for that voice, so you heard the voice. Because a guitar can cover up a baritone voice, if it’s not strong enough.
Are you more drawn to his fingerpicking than his flatpicking?
He was just a great guitar player, in general. What I’m enamored with is the Merle Travis-style fingerpicking that he would do with two finger picks. He’d have a thumb pick and an index finger pick. The traditional way of doing that style, and the most logical… Doc Watson said in one interview, “It doesn’t make any sense the way I do it.” Because you need three fingers to do it. But, evidently not, because he pulls it off with two. There’s something in the syncopation of doing it with two that makes it funky. It makes it soulful. I like it all, but that’s the part that I’ve been, over the last year, trying to do. It’ll take years, I’m sure, to get it right.
How hard is it to play fiddle tunes on a guitar like he did? That must be “black belt” guitar mastery.
Yeah. And singing and all that. For me, it’s really hard because I’ve always used a flat pick. Since I was 10 or 11 years old, that’s just how I learned. I never studied any other style that much. When I find myself without a pick, I’ll fingerpick as best I can and it’s very difficult with the meat of the tips of your fingers because you miss strings all the time.
The way he did it was, he was doing all the bass and root stuff, and the rhythm track, as well, with his thumb. And that never stops. Along with that, all of a sudden the melody comes in and that’s really difficult because it’s syncopated. You’re playing completely different patterns than that thumb. The thumb can’t stop doing what it’s doing, and my thumb wants to stop. [Laughs] It’s just a thing you have to practice and practice.
So I have to learn to play with finger picks and that’s not something I’ve really explored, not for more than about 30 minutes and I get fed up with it. [Laughs]
Even though he innovated his own style, Doc did what he could to keep the old music alive, as well. How important is it to do both — preserve traditions and move forward?
I think that’s really important. The moving forward part is the art of what you’re doing, personally. It’s kind of a — I don’t know if it’s selfish or not — but it’s more about you. The other part is what I try to concentrate on because it’s just kind of natural — you always want to keep moving forward and doing your own thing. But my own thing has never been all that original. It’s all based on a bunch of different things that I grew up listening to and that I still love. I’ll hear something that I love and think, “Wow. I want to make something that sounds kind of like that!”
And he did keep the old music — he, basically, turned everyone on to all those old mountain songs and the Carter Family and some others. But that guy toured a lot. He played every night, it seems. So he was playing a lot of places, a lot of festivals, tiny church events… whatever he could, probably from the time he was a teenager.
But I think, for me, at this point in my career, looking at the old stuff is what I’m doing. I think it’s because I’m not hearing anything that’s really new. It doesn’t motivate me, necessarily. It’s not that it’s bad. It’s just that I’ve already heard that. Just like people have already heard what I’m doing. There’s so much out there, you really have to be into a certain thing to go buy a ticket and show up for the show or buy the record.
But I think keeping the old, traditional music alive is important. And, of course, the whole bluegrass scene… I’ve heard bluegrass artists joke for years about how they were in the Top 10 on the bluegrass charts and it made them hundreds of dollars. [Laughs] But, the thing is, all the real stuff has always been that way. I can only think of two American Blues artists, right now, who do really well. And you might be really surprised if you looked at their personal situations, at what their debt is like and all that.
So, yeah, I think it’s always been that way with stuff that isn’t in the popular vein — whatever that is. The people who stick with their roots and do their thing, sometimes they suffer a bit because of it, but thank God they do that because we still have it to listen to.
Like you said, Doc died a couple years ago. He was 89. What do you think that experience is like making music into your 80s?
Yeah, I saw him when he was in his 80s. It was awesome! It was one of the best things I’ve ever seen and heard.
Well, he probably had good genes, for one. [Laughs] From what I could tell — from a bunch of interviews and things I’ve seen — he just seemed like a pretty peaceful cat, you know? He was the closest thing a Christian can be to a Buddhist. He looked like that, like he was at peace with himself knowing what he could do, and he was fast to make fun of different things he would do. So you could see the humility and the willingness to find yourself funny, too.
But, he was just incredible. I wish I’d have known him because I always admired him. A lot of that, though, is living as healthy as he can. He probably wasn’t a big drinker or smoker or any of that. And he kept doing what made him happy. He kept playing music. That’s what I hope to do, for sure.
What part of Doc’s career or catalog would you say is his greatest legacy?
That’s a tough one, man. But maybe when he and his son Merle had records out together. That’s pretty cool stuff and it also sets up the legacy of MerleFest and all that came after his death. I think that time frame, probably, if you’re talking about an era. The ’60s would be what most people would say because the rest of the country started getting hip to it — he shows up at Newport Folk Festival and places like that. Before that, he was hanging out in the mountains, for the most part, and doing some shorter touring. But, I don’t think the country knew him as well until that point. And then it was done, in the sense that people who knew him would spread the word because he was so great. It’s word of mouth, still, with that stuff.