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Darol Anger Remembers Doc Watson

doc watson tribute

I first heard Doc's live Vanguard record with Merle in about 1970, and a couple months later was able to see him at the huge and wonderful  Zellerbach Concert Hall in Berkeley. Everyone was talking about him by that time! There was a very specific feeling associated with hearing Doc. There is an aliveness, and awareness to his playing which shocked me, and brought a sense of music as a living thing, which was a new thing for me.

I first heard Doc's live Vanguard record with Merle in about 1970, and a couple months later was able to see him at the huge and wonderful  Zellerbach Concert Hall in Berkeley. Everyone was talking about him by that time! There was a very specific feeling associated with hearing Doc. There is an aliveness, and awareness to his playing which shocked me, and brought a sense of music as a living thing, which was a new thing for me.

His guitar sound was light, but electric in the organic sense, with a feeling of zippy forward motion that I have always loved. He never lost the feeling of the music being dance music, especially that lovely old-time North Carolina string band lift. My hair stood on end! I’ve never felt that feeling with any other guitarist until I met David Grier in 1995. Recently, my pal and fellow ArtistWorks Teacher Bryan Sutton has done a similar thing for me.

Doc has always presented himself as a traditionalist in public, but I think he is mostly interested in “traditional” standards of tone, timing, and intonation: the high craft of music. Beyond that, he enjoyed creativity, brevity, and sincerity. His amazing rhythmic sense and touch pretty much tied together everything he played. Given that he spent a lot of time in his youth playing western swing-style electric guitar, and pretty much invented the flat-picking lead fiddle tune style, it would be wrong to call him a stylistic traditionalist. Nobody had heard that sound before!

doc watson david grismanMy old boss David Grisman was the first guy I knew who had played with Doc. Doc happened to be coming into the SF Bay Area to play, and I had been working with David for about a year and and a half by then. David had total respect & love for Doc and told me a great story about Doc. Doc made a habit of giving young players their first break, getting them up on stage and featuring them, empowering them and giving them infectious rhythm to play on. Doc had done it with David ten years before, and now David was going to introduce me to Doc and the same thing was going to happen... and it did!He wasn’t averse to singing contemporary folk or pop songs either, if he thought was a good song and reflected his standards. It basically comes down to the fact that Doc invented his own genre, a marvel of consistency and integrity, which became the touchstone and departure point for thousands of acoustic string musicians.

Nobody didn’t love Doc, and everyone agreed he was really special. Yet there was a feeling, on the west coast at least, that Doc was sort of like a spectacular natural feature of the landscape; inevitable, fully formed, iconic. He seemed ageless, and his so-called “disability’ and spectacular transcendence of that, along with his folksy manner, made him a kind of mythic character, sort of a household god. Honestly, I can’t even imagine what it must be like to tour around and not be able to see what’s going on... It certainly adds to Doc’s godlike, incredibly competent image. I would imagine that from early on, though, things were pretty all right as far as his touring situation. Ralph Rinzler was very protective of Doc, and later Merle was able to take care of him, though I think that situation worked both ways.

We went down to the Great American Music Hall, the plushest venue in San Francisco, went backstage and I met Doc, who was very gracious. We talked a bit about what kind of fiddling I liked, and later I was called up on stage and we played that legendary version of Salt Creek that Doc made famous all over the world, that changed everything... what a thrill. I had never played better, and Doc’s ear, rhythm and welcoming attitude I believe made the difference. I even got a favorable mention in the local paper saying how I had “arrived” as a player.

Later we played many shows together with the DGQ and Doc & Merle, and we got to be a bit more friends. Doc was always friendly and interested in how I was doing, and Merle was a lot of fun. It was always an amazing exploration to put myself in Doc's space and imagine how it was to be hearing all these voices but not seeing, and all the amazing levels of meaning and reality that we sometimes miss because we have so much visual input going on.   We had some pretty raucous dressing room moments, especially if it was a festival and folks like New Grass Revival were on the bill. 

Much later we used to visit a little at Merlefest, though by then there were so many demands on Doc's time and energy that I felt like I was always intruding a bit. We did have one very special moment when Psychograss got to jam with Doc on stage; that was apparently David Grier's first time playing with Doc and it was amazing. David was so deferential and respectful to Doc and at the same time wanted to show Doc how much Doc's playing had influenced him, and what David could now do with that same uplifitng feeling. I think it was a really special moment and I felt lucky to be there.





Doc Watson and Darol Anger on stage 1978


 

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