Remembering Doc Watson
A young musician’s day with one of the greatest there ever was
The performance that evening was at Salem College. Doc would be playing solo, and Wayne drove the three of us to the venue. We stopped and had supper at a K&W Cafeteria. I remember a swell of pride as Doc asked me to guide him into the restaurant. We walked slowly through the cafeteria line, his hand on my shoulder. I was nervous because I thought I might mess up somehow.
When we arrived at the college, I helped carry his guitar and amplifier inside. During the show, he played the song I was trying to learn at the time and, much to my amazement, mentioned me in his introduction—something about how there’s a young fellow in the audience trying to learn this one and that he’s doing a good job with it. I remember how clear his voice was, and how melodic his picking was, and how I, along with the rest of the audience, was completely rapt. I had never experienced a performance like it: simple in presentation, technically complex at times, highly professional, engaging, relatable, and vastly entertaining. He was funny and friendly and human and powerful but not in a way that I had ever seen before. In my mind at the time, “power” in musical performance was often synonymous with “volume” or even “aggression.” The power Doc had as a musician, and as a person, was not of the variety that required loudness. On the stage his ability to tell a story and to interpret a song so fully and with such a natural feel for melody was enough to draw the undivided attention of everyone in the room, no matter the size. Millions would have this experience firsthand throughout his eighty-nine years. His was a voice of unparalleled temperament, even and strong, graceful yet gloriously matter-of-fact. It truly was, and will remain, one of our classic American voices, rightfully in the company of Louis Armstrong, Hank Williams, Sr., Elvis Presley, Ella Fitzgerald.
In life, Doc was friendly and respectful to strangers, friends, family members, and fans. He exemplified patience, and brought joy and laughter to those with whom he came in contact. In conversation, he spoke and listened with interest, even to a thirteen-year-old kid from Concord.
When the show was over that night, I sold merchandise for Doc Watson. It took so much concentration just to count the change, as I was buzzing so intensely from the performance I had just witnessed. My dad was there for the show, and as people made their way out of the venue, we walked over and said our good-byes to Doc and Wayne. My dad thanked Doc for allowing me to come and visit, and Doc told him it was a pleasure to have me along and that I helped a lot. His saying that remains one of the proudest moments in my memory.
Doc Watson changed the way I saw the acoustic guitar. He changed my understanding of how a song could be presented in sound and mood. He made me laugh, and he made me listen more intently to the melody. He helped lead me to a uniquely rich tradition of music, and to a path of research and inspiration that continues for me daily. I am eternally grateful to this man who spent so much of his life sharing songs, and who was kind enough to share some with me all those years ago, on a clear day in the Blue Ridge Mountains.
Timothy Seth Avett is a founding member, with his brother Scott, of the Avett Brothers.