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Doc Watson may find easy pickin' at last

By Greg Cahill

"To me, music is life set to lyrics and melody--that's what it is," says Doc Watson, his soft Southern drawl and rich baritone drifting over the phone line as smooth as the piney wood smoke that fills the hills around his Carolina home. "And I will not play a song that I don't like. If I can't feel the lyrics or the melody or both, I won't play it.

"I can't put my heart into it."

For 35 years, guitarist Arthel "Doc" Watson has put heart and soul into his music, earning five Grammy Awards and a reputation as a flat-picker extraordinaire and one of America's premier acoustic guitarists. In that time, Watson--struck blind in infancy--has recorded more than 40 albums and played with everyone from Bill Monroe to Michelle Shocked. He is the subject of a new four-CD career retrospective, Doc Watson: The Vanguard Years (Vanguard), that includes an entire disc of previously unreleased concert material.

His most recent album, Docabilly (Sugar Hill), is a tribute to the country, blues, and rockabilly that first allowed him to support his family as a professional musician before being "discovered" in 1960 in the heat of the folk revival by a pair of big-city musicologists scouring the Appalachian backwoods for authentic bluegrass and country pickers who could whet the appetites of college kids weaned on such white-bread acts as the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four. It features an all-star line-up of players that includes bluegrass picker-turned-country idol Marty Stuart, rockabilly legend Duane Eddy, Texas guit-steel phenom Junior Brown, and dobro master Mike Auldridge, among others.

"You talk about some fun," enthuses Watson, adding that most of the album was recorded on first takes. Those boys can play!"

But now this mountain maestro--who makes a rare North Bay appearance next week at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts--is planning to put the road behind him and retire to his patch of Deep Gap, N.C., on land homesteaded by his great-great grandfather. "I'm doing about a tenth of what I was doing before I decided I wanted Uncle Sam to give me back some of that Social Security money," he adds. "I'll be 73 in March and I don't like the road. I love the music and I love a good audience as much as anyone alive. But I don't like the road. I don't like being away from home.

"I'm kinda like an old dog--I'm hard to run off from home anymore."

Watson's rise to the top of the pantheon of country pickers began in earnest in 1964 when he played the Newport Folk Festival accompanied by his father-in-law, fiddler Gaither Carlton, his brother Arnold, and other members of his family. Homespun and unpretentious, and blessed with virtuoso bluegrass licks, his old-timey music was an immediate hit.

In 1964, Watson's son, Merle, then 15, joined his father as an accompanist, becoming known for bluesy guitar and banjo exchanges. It marked the beginning of a close personal and professional relationship that ended abruptly in 1985 when Merle was crushed beneath an overturned tractor at his farm.

For Watson, the accident proved devastating. "The only time I almost really quit was when we lost Merle," he says. "I canceled everything that was booked from there on out. And then, I had a dream--which I won't go into detail about now--about Merle helping me out of a terrible fix that I was into in that dream. That was between the accident and the funeral. I thought, 'He wouldn't want me to quit.' So I called and reinstated the last job on the tour, got out there and did it, and just kept goin'."

What does he miss most about his late son? "Merle," says Watson, his voice dropping off to a reverent tone, "just in general. His music, his personality, his friendship, everything about him. Without him, I might have achieved only a third of what I've done because Merle was with me during the hard years. And, god, the hundreds of thousands of miles we drove together."

Still, it's clear the stage is a special place for Watson. "It's wonderful. But before you know it, the show is over and you're thinking, 'Hey, I didn't get to play all I wanted to,'" he says. "When you walk on a stage and you've got an audience of fans out there and they give you that big hand, it's like a handshake with someone who's warm and friendly, only it's amplified ever so many hundreds of times. It's a wonderful experience, but it's never put my head above the ceiling much because I don't like the pedestal--I kinda hate it, actually.

"I love people. I love fellowship. And I love for people to appreciate what I do. But I don't want folks to say I'm great or that I'm a legend. That's bull. Just tell what I did and leave it at that."

Doc Watson performs Sunday, Feb. 11, at 8 p.m. at the Luther Burbank Center for the Arts, 50 Mark West Springs Road, Santa Rosa. Tickets are $21.50. 546-3600.

From the Feb. 8-14, 1996 issue of the Sonoma Independent

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