Doc Watson is a legend in mountain music. Now 81 years old, he’s not had an easy life, starting with a childhood infection that left him blind from his first few years of life. His son and musical collaborator, Merle, died in a farming accident, and Watson founded the annual MerleFest in his memory. It’s held in Wilkesboro, N.C. every spring. Watson has won multiple Grammy awards and received the National Medal of the Arts (from former U.S. President Clinton). He’ll perform at The Lyric Theatre in Blacksburg on February 5.
Why have you never left North Carolina?
I’ll give you a simple, old-fashioned answer.
I’m like an old dog, I hate to be run off from home.
And I wouldn’t live in the city if they’d give it to me.
Do you play every day?
I’m 81 years old and I’m pretty well versed on the material I need to use. If I come across something from the old days I need to refresh my head on I’ll sit down, I might pick up the guitar and play seriously twice a week, but occasionally I’ll pick it up and play maybe one tune or half a one, and put it down. No, I don’t play every day. Don’t need to.
Is music ever exhausting?
I don’t overpractice. Sometimes I’ll learn a new tune and I’ll work on it for 15, 20 minutes, but if I can’t get it by then, I’ll say, “well, I believe I’ll leave this alone and the next time I pick the guitar up.”
I think it has something to do with boredom or something, I don’t know what. I love music, but learning tunes comes a little harder than it used to do. We have those senior moments when we get my age. (laughs)
What kind of performance settings do you prefer to play in?
The size of the halls doesn’t matter to me too much. Intimacy comes from being yourself on the stage and making the audience feel, without trying, that you’re sittin’ down there with ‘em, playing, and that can happen in a big hall, if you have a good audience that want to listen. If you have a noisy audience, it’s hard, it’s very hard. Son used to laugh and say, “Dad, this is gonna be a tough one – we’ll have to pick for ourselves and take the money and run!”
We have had to play some mighty tough audiences. Once I remember a thing at Winston-Salem – it was a golf tournament and the grandson of R. J. Reynolds wanted us to come and play it, and we realized it was a mistake when we got there, but he was offering good money. We played – two of the boys would take a drink now and then, and I – I’m not a teetotaler, I might drink a glass of wine once or twice a month or maybe less than that, before dinner, but to drink hard liquor, I won’t do it.
We played one tune and both of the boys looked at the man at the bar and said, “bring us a double scotch,” and that’s all they drank during the whole set. They sipped on that and we played the set.
I walked up to the guy to take up the money, or he walked up to me, and he said, “we certainly did enjoy the music.” And I said, “son, you probably did, but you know those people couldn’t a cared less about the music, it was so noisy you couldn’t hardly think.”
That’s not a good setting. I don’t do none – any – of those anymore. If … there will be an audience out there that will love what they hear because they know what they’re coming to hear, and they’ll appreciate what we do [I’ll play the concert]. And I’ll be as informal as I am talking to you from the stage – I won’t put on no airs of no kind.
Can you tell me about your home?
I live out in the countryside here, I guess 12 miles from the county seat of Boone, N.C. I live in a little community called Deep Gap, N.C., but we live off the hard top – we live on a little drive called Sunny Hill Lane and we have our own family plot started. Our son, the late Merle Watson’s, resting place is … oh, maybe 250 or 300 feet from where I’m sitting here in the house. A little Japanese fellow came by and asked if he could see our garden, what he called it.
What do you do with your time these days, since you’re not playing as much?
Any kind of chores I can find to do to help Rosalee around the house here, whatever I need to do and sometimes I get out and walk for exercise. I’ve gotten lazy, I don’t do that much more – that’s bad, because my health is good. My wife’s health is not good at all. When we lost Merle, we almost lost her too, in a short time she had some severe heart attacks, and almost didn’t survive, and now her health’s real bad, and the heart problem’s coming on again.
I don’t know. It’s hard – it’s a burden. You have to do the best you can, and I still work some because I don’t know what kind of medical expenses will come on in the late years of our lives and I don’t want to spend the savings if I can help it. And my grandson loves the music and he loves to play music with me so it helps him out some, you know how that is. And as long as my health stays good, I guess I’ll play a few shows a year.
I know your father was a big influence over you when you were young. What was the most important lesson he taught you?
It wasn’t teaching. He needed me. He realized I didn’t need to sit in a corner because I was visually handicapped, and he put me to work, because he needed me and he knew I was strong and I could learn to work.
Have you ever seen two men pull a cross-cut saw? They didn’t have chainsaws in those days. I was 14. I helped him to clear a little new ground piece – he wanted to plant corn and potatoes, whatever in it, you know, and he had a bunch of old dead chestnut trees, a bunch of old things in there that needed to be cut, and that’s where I first learned what a man’s work was.
Then I used to get out – I wouldn’t do it now for love nor money, the way traffic is, but I used to get out and hitchhike, go to Boone, go to the movie on Saturday. I played music on the street.
Once a reporter asked me, “are you ashamed you ever played on the street?”
I said, “No, I was selling something then, just like when you bought a ticket to get in here.’” And buddy, that hushed that up right quick. (laughs)
I was a bit smart alecky with him, but he shouldn’t have asked me that. I gave him a straight answer.
Everything I read about you describes you as “legend.” How do you feel about being called a legend?
I’ll tell you how I feel about me. I love music, and luckily have enough God-given talent, ‘til, with help, I developed it, and encouragement is what I mean by help, and when the folk revival came along, it became a vocation.
I feel about me like I’m one of the working people, just like you, and everybody else. I don’t fit the part of a celebrity. They put me on a pedestal, I’ll jump off. I can’t stand that.
And I don’t mean to be ungrateful for any award I’ve gotten – I’m just thankful for it, and especially the ones I’ve won with our son, the late Merle Watson. He was instrumental in helping me get to where I am right now. The dues-paying days were hard, and he stuck by me, when the work was absolutely man-killing, on his part, because of all the driving. In the dues-paying days you don’t have money to fly. And if you make ends meet, you gotta save every dime you can. And I’m thankful that I had the help and that I had him. That tractor accident tore our hearts out. And almost killed Merle’s mother.
Even with these many years gone, it must be still hard.
It hurts. And the grief still hangs to Rosalee like somethin’ you can’t get rid of. I mean the hurtin’ part of the grief. You’ll always miss the child or a loved one in the family, but … she was his mother, and I’ve often said that the closest thing to the love of Jesus Christ on the cross, that he showed, is a mother’s love, a true mother’s love, for a child.
Now you’ve gotten me into the serious side of things.
Do you have other children?
We have a daughter. She never did marry. She lives close to us. She has that multiple – chemical syndrome allergy where people are allergic to everything you can think of. She has to wear a carbon mask all the time when she’s out in public and just any kind of thing just about makes her sick. So, we’re loaded with problem after problem. You have to kind of grit your teeth, as the old timers used to say, and face up to it. A body can’t quit. Any woman would’ve quit with health as bad as Rosalee’s, but if she had quit, she wouldn’t be here. She still tries.
If you weren’t a musician, what would you have done?
If I could see, I probably wouldn’a been a musician except as a hobby – I would have loved the guitar when I had to play, but I might have been a carpenter, or an electrician, or a mechanic, or something like that. I have interests in several things, but the music was the thing that happened to come handy, and I had someone to help me get started. The late Ralph Rinzler helped me to get into the folk revival, when it came along, and Merle started learning the guitar, and we took it from there. Wonderful guy.
I even built my utility building. It’s not just a shed – it’s a building enclosed in, where you can put tools and they won’t rust, you know, it’s not open to the air. A good little building. If you could see it, you’d say, “oh, you didn’t build that.” Yes I did. Put the roof on it even.
It was a good thing that happened to me, when I was a boy, that started me on the road to knowing that I didn’t have to sit in the corner somewhere. Blind people, most of them, are oversheltered. People don’t understand.
…I went and did as I pleased. And I never got hurt, either. Not really.
How do you navigate?
You know what the word radar means? Do you know what a bat’s radar means? I’ll give you one example, and that’s as far as I’ll go with it.
If I was walking through the grass at 20 years old, the rustle of the grass as I walked by a fence oh, maybe five, six feet away from it if the wind wasn’t blowing and covering up the high end sound, I could count the stakes by the sound, the high-end sound bouncing off the stakes as I rustled the grass and walked through it. That was my radar. Sound radar. Physical sound, not electronic.
And I could walk a country road by that same principle and same thing and not get in the ditch, I mean I could do it without a stick, and not go up and bump into the bank – I could walk right straight down the middle of the road. It’s not like that now. Oh, I’d give a million dollars if I could. But you know, if we live a long time in this old world, somethin’ about the old body has to begin to wear out, and lucky for me hearing is one of the things that begins to lose the top end, the high frequencies. That’s where the radar sounds comes from. When you lose that, I have to take a stick to walk around my own yard. Or I really need to, or I’m liable to hit somethin’.
How does it affect how you hear music?
It doesn’t affect it at all. You can’t hear the transients, or the high ends of the guitar strings, but you can hear the basics, and you can still tune good, but I can’t tune if it’s noisy now like I used to could. I used to could tune during an applause, if a string went out.
Do you listen to other musicians these days?
It might be classical music, or it might be old time fiddlin’, or it might be some good old ballads, or just some good singin’. Gospel singing I love, especially the down-to-earth kind.
I’m gonna have to go, honey.