When we needed a photo of Doc Watson to accompany Seth Avett’s tribute in our Aug/Sept issue, our first call was to Nashville-based photographer Jim McGuire. Having photographed over 650 album covers throughout his forty-year career, McGuire has produced some of the most iconic images of Watson. Talking to Garden & Gun about what it was like to work with the beloved country musician, McGuire provides some of his favorite photos of Watson and offers us a glimpse into the close and long-lasting friendship he and Watson shared.
When did you first meet Doc Watson?
I was aware of Doc in the mid 1960s from his early albums… They were the inspiration for me to first pick up a guitar. But I think the first time I laid eyes on him was at the Philadelphia Folk Festival in ’68. I was living in NYC at the time and most weekends were spent traveling to points South to the many folk and bluegrass festivals that were springing up everywhere…..especially in the Philly, DC, and Northern Virginia area. I was writing a music column for the Village Voice called “Riffs,” where I wrote reviews on many of the rural bluegrass bands and folk singers that were starting to make their way into the clubs and concert halls up North as part of what became known as the “Folk Revival” of the 1960s. Doc was a major part of that, having already been introduced to wider audiences after several appearances at the prestigious Newport Folk Festival a few years earlier. I think I first actually met Doc backstage at the Philly festival and many times later backstage at Sam Hood’s Gas Light Club… and Gerde’s Folk City… clubs that he often played in the Village in the ’60s. Doc had a photographic memory for voices, if there is such a thing….the way some people never forget a face…….and for many, many years later, if I was in a room with him he would always call out, “Is that Brother Jim?” Very endearing… somehow… we connected early on.
You photographed Doc many times over the years. Is there one shot in particular that stands out in your mind?
The first album cover I shot for Doc was the Memories album, in 1975. It was kind of a big deal…. for Doc because it was his first release on a major label (United Artist) and was a double album to be recorded in Nashville….And for me because I was getting to spend an afternoon with one of my guitar heros and finally getting him into my studio where I could do some real B&W portraits. But I guess my favorite shoot with Doc was for the Docabilly album cover in 1995. It was kind of a rockabilly album, which was a departure enough for Doc as he loved trying new things musically… and I just wanted to do something really different for him. We started throwing out ideas about maybe using a ’50s car as a prop and I remember Doc saying that one of his favorite dreams was to someday drive a car……and that’s all I needed to hear. I told him we were going to rent a ’50s convertible and teach him how to drive it and shoot it for the cover. At first, he thought I was just kidding… but when he realized I was serious …he was beaming… and couldn’t stop talking about it…..and he told me the day of the shoot he didn’t sleep much the night before because he was so excited about driving the convertible. So I found a stretch of road in Nashville that was blocked off… but you could still see other traffic in the background giving the feel of driving in traffic, even though we weren’t. Once we got Doc checked out in the car, he would drive 30 or 40 yards and stop and back up and do it again… and again… and again….and faster and faster. The guy who owned the car was on the floor next to Doc in case anything went wrong. It didn’t… he was the best blind driver I ever saw!
Doc Watson was a famously private man. How did you draw him out?
He may have been a private man when it came to his family and some of his personal life…but to engage Doc was about like talking to your neighbor or best friend. He knew so much about so many different kinds of music….he listened to everything….radio, records, TV, tapes, and especially all the people that he shared stages and jammed with backstage…..he loved it all…….and probably knew 5,000 songs. He could cut back 40 years and tell you where he first heard a particular song, who the singer was and where he was. There was really no drawing out Doc Watson….all you had to do was start talking about music or put a guitar in his hand and he was off and running. Except for his touring schedule, he lived a pretty simple life in Deep Gap. In 1978, I got to spend a day at his home when we were shooting the Look Away album cover. Driving in, I remembered a very beautiful stretch of the Blue Ridge Parkway overlooking the mountains……which was where we shot the cover photo. I remember it was very cold and snow on the ground and a lovely walk down the driveway with Doc and his wife, Rosa Lee.
Most memorable moment on set?
Working with Doc was always just good-natured fun… you were never sure what you were going to get into…..he had a lovely sense of humor. He also had a real fascination with mechanical gadgets, especially clocks and pocket watches. I remember one time my longtime assistant R.B. brought a cigarette lighter that played “Dixie” to one of Doc’s photo sessions. It took a little explaining for Doc to understand what this silly little truck stop gadget was, but he was just fascinated by it. So R.B. gave it to him to take home… and for the rest of the afternoon, Doc carried it around and played it over and over. At one point he pressed it to the bone behind his ear while it played… and then went around and made everyone listen to it behind their ears… it was hilarious. And we were all more than a little surprised that on his next album, the last song was “Dixie”…must have been imbedded in his brain by then.
You’ve photographed a huge range of music legends, from Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson to George Strait. What made Doc Watson special?
Well…..one of the real joys of doing this work…..and probably the reason I got into it in the first place…..was to meet and get to hang out with some of my heros from time to time. I picked up the guitar in high school and played on and off through my 30s. And for anyone who ever tried to play this style of guitar…..Doc was the master……there were other great guitar players but no one played like Doc. He has a light touch and understated yet complex style that was all his own, and you just could not duplicate it. All you could do was to try to learn something from it…and there’s no telling how many guitar players have been influenced by Doc’s playing………but for me…….to be able to sit in a room and watch this guitar magic unfold before you and listen to a master storyteller……is about as special as it gets.
What is your favorite Doc Watson album?
For me, it was his 1966 Vangard album Southbound. This was an album I wore out trying to learn to play guitar before I ever met Doc. The beauty of this recording is in its simplicity…just Doc and Merle and John Pilla on another rhythm guitar and bass. But it was Doc at his best and the mix was perfect…you can hear every guitar note as clear as a bell…and Doc’s voice was strong and raw…and perfect song choices…This was a struggling guitar player’s instruction album…If you want to hear how a guitar is supposed to be played…this is how!
What is next on the horizon for you?
Find a good home for my massive, forty year photography archive… and then disappear…