In retrospect, the greatest achievement of Doc Watson, who died yesterday at 89, might have been his endlessly curious middle-aged brand. Discovered in the early ’60s, when the Old, Weird America was experiencing a toasty revival in youth-riddled garages across the country, Doc was one of the few bluegrass musicians to gain prominence during that era with a putatively wholesome, down-home demeanor. Incredibly, his and John Hartford’s debuts came only a few years apart from one another—but Hartford was in his mid 20s, while Doc was in his mid 40s. The former would conquer Nashville as a songwriter and spiral off into a scorched-earth path of string-band cubism; the latter was cherished as an atavistic relic even while his career was in its infancy. Doc had, in fact, only been making records for about 10 years when he made his “comeback” alongside earlier country giants like Merle Travis and the Carter Family on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken. His age, along with the enormous confidence of his playing, allowed him to seamlessly integrate with the crowd whose licks he’d been practicing in perpetuity.
But the twists and turns of mid-century music trends aside, Doc’s sound wasn’t exactly a last stand of conservatism. If he failed to mutate along with his second-generation cohort into hippie weirdness, it was because his multitudinous and never-quite-squeaky-clean image didn’t need to. Though patient and soft-spoken compared to hotheaded bluegrass stars like Bill Monroe, Doc was like a crazy mystic who’d been dragged out of a mountain and put in front of a microphone. His low tenor voice trembled with an eerie caginess; it was capable of remarkable authenticity, as on his blisteringly pious a cappella “Down in the Valley to Pray,” but always sounded on the brink of cracking a joke. He was blind, beady-eyed, and broad-faced (he looked like Andy Griffith’s no-nonsense, head-squashing cousin) and typically played intimidating Martin dreadnoughts, even on delicates tunes like the one below. (For those who’ve never fingerpicked a D-18: Pick up a coffee table and try strumming the air in front of it.)
Most of this is fantasy, of course, and careful imaging. When he hooked up with Folkways Records, he didn’t even own an acoustic guitar, and had been playing an electric in Tennessee honkytonks as a professional for about a decade. Musicologist and producer Ralph Rinzler suggested a switch to an earthier sound, and he snagged Doc a second billing on Clarence “The Cuckoo” Ashley’s comeback record. But this truth, too, singularizes him. Doc’s passion, as it turns out, was for the guitar itself, rather than any particular genre or dialect of music, which in a sense makes him a logical transitional figure between the guitarists who helped invent bluegrass and those who subverted it with virtuosity in the ’70s.
With his mercurial personality and picking tempos that likely had listeners checking their turntable’s RPM settings, Doc popularized the notion that a single man with a string instrument could be bluegrass just as effectively as three accompanists and a batty mandolin player. His finger style lacked the density of Merle Travis’s—who often tricks you into thinking he’s double-tracking himself—and the dry sturdiness of Del McCoury’s, but he made up for this with melodic ornamentation…and speed. Watch, in the video below, how the camera confusingly dotes on Doc’s left hand as it clutches the fret lazily for “Black Mountain Rag”:
Like inveterate soloists Norman Blake, Tony Rice, and Leo Kottke after him (or, to take it further, like the guitarists who would spawn punk 15 years after his emergence), Doc wasn’t afraid of flubbing a few notes when pushing an old standard to a pace just shy of unplayable. And while he recorded with a number of groups (most notably with his son Merle, until the latter’s death in the 1980s), and occasionally wrote his own diddies, his most enduring work is inarguably his lonesome interpretations of old-timey tracks like “Black Mountain Rag” and “Intoxicated Rat.” Doc didn’t simply play the bluegrass guitar—he challenged it.