Tuottaja Will Shade muistelee Doc Watsonia

Doc Watson juuri ennen viimeistä settiään vuoden 2012 MerleFesteillä - kuva © Scott Rouse

Pohjois-Carolinasta kotoisin oleva amerikkalainen tuottaja Will Shade on työskennellyt mm. The Monksin, Mike & The Ravensin, Treat Her Rightin ja kotimaisen Them Bird Thingsin kanssa, jonka syksyllä julkaistavaa kolmatta levyä hän juuri nyt tuottaa. 29.5.2012 kuollut, amerikkalaisen musiikin järkäleluokkaan Johnny Cashin, James Brownin, Muddy Watersin, Hank Williamsin, Bill Monroen ja vastaavien kanssa kuuluva Arthel ”Doc” Watson oli tuttu hahmo nuoruudesta.

Tässä Willin muistelut asian tiimoilta.

In the summer of 1988, I dropped out of college and at the behest of a high school friend, Floyd, I moved to the mountains of North Carolina. We planned on working that summer – while living rent free in a tee-pee – and saving up money for an extended jaunt through Australia. We spent the summer mowing grass for a local landscaper. The employer’s uncle was an old mountain man named John Henry Hodges. We just called him Pedro. He was almost a walking cliché, usually drunk, but full of old-timey wisdom and pithy sayings. A quarter of a century later I can still remember the ending to one of his limericks, “that big black spot/she called it a twat/but it looked more like a manhole to me.” Damned if I can remember how it started, though!

Pedro regaled us with yarns about moonshining and running from revenuers with hot-rods through the winding roads of Watagua County back in the 1940s. He also mentioned a fellow he’d played old-timey tunes with. I heard the name Doc Watson several times that summer, but it never dawned on me that this fellow was someone famous.

Pedro had long ago hung up his fiddle, but he had hilarious stories about spending Saturday nights at illegal backwoods speakeasies scattered throughout the mountains, playing in a trio with Doc and a banjo player called Frog Greene. I had no idea who Doc was. I’d grown up musically out-of-step with my peers, listening to the Yardbirds, Pretty Things and Butterfield Blues Band while they listened to all things Bruce Springsteen and Michael Jackson (damn their eyes). I was aware of Piedmont blues, having gone to high school in Winston-Salem – Blind Boy Fuller‘s old stomping grounds –  but mountain music was not yet on my radar.

As summer ended, Floyd backed out of the Australia trip and moved to Massachusetts. I spent early autumn  working with Pedro. One day he mentioned that we had to take a bit of a drive down to Deep Gap to mow the lawn of his old pal, Doc Watson.

I was surprised as we pulled up the driveway to see a blind man ease down the porch to greet us. Pedro cackled delightedly, shaking his friend’s hand, and introduced me to Doc Watson. Before we had a chance to unload the lawnmowers off the trailer, we were ensconced on the porch and sipping on iced tea as Pedro and Doc shared memories. I can’t stand iced tea, but having been raised properly, I nursed it for the next hour, which passed in a blur of experiences recalled. I can’t remember every story the duo shared, but two stand out. One concerned one of the aforementioned speakeasies (Watagua County was dry until the ‘80s); Doc, Pedro and Frog had played throughout a Saturday night, sucking down as much liquor as their audience did. By the end of the gig, the trio were absolutely hammered. Pedro was drunk enough to suggest to Doc that he drive them all home. Doc was drunk enough to acquiesce! He started the car and was ready to go before Frog sobered up enough to realize – drunk as he was – he’d rather drive than let a blind man do so…

As an aside, I’ve often wondered if the picture on the album cover of Doc’s ‘50s homage, “Docabilly,” referenced this. Said cover shows the blind Doc, dark glasses underlining the point, in the driver’s seat of a classic car.

The other story I remember also had to do with Doc’s blindness. The trio had gone down to Wilkesboro to play a Sunday afternoon gospel style show on the radio at some point in the ‘50s. The church crowd would have come home from morning service and tuned into the radio to continue the day’s worship of the Lord. The show was very popular and drew a large audience. The trio of Doc, Pedro and Frog played old hymns and religious songs deemed appropriate for their Sunday afternoon show. During a commercial break, Doc began to tell Pedro and Frog a dirty story. They chortled and snorted until the producer ran into the room, exhorting them to look at the overhead light that indicated they were back on air. Doc, of course, couldn’t see when they had come off the commercial break. His risqué joke went out over the airways and the station’s telephone switchboard was jammed with dozens of irate callers, complaining about blue language and lack of morals.

In later years, Doc worked very hard to project the image of the good Christian gentleman, which he surely was. However, there’s no doubt that he was as wild a youth as any musician growing up in the mountains of North Carolina in the ‘40s and ‘50s would have been.

Finally, we stood up and said our thanks to Doc and fired up the lawnmowers and groomed Doc‘s grass. On the drive back to Boone, Pedro mentioned that Doc had made some records. That got me mildly curious, but not enough to seek any out. After all, I had other friends who’d made vanity recordings that I’d listened to out of sheer good manners…

Don’t be so quick to ridicule my ignorance as funny as it may be in retrospect (hell, I‘m embarrassed enough as it is). The key to my not knowing who Doc was had just as much to do with Doc as it did my rather limited knowledge of acoustic music at that point in my life. Doc was so unassuming and so humble that not once during our conversation on the porch did anything slip that let me know this man was a giant, nay, a Titan of 20th Century Music. He had single-handedly redefined the way flat-pick guitar was played, transposing fiddle tunes to the guitar amongst other things… when I left Deep Gap that afternoon, I just thought I’d met a kindly old man who happened to be buddies with Pedro.

However, I was aware of something a bit “off” during the extended break on the porch. There was an air of ineffable sadness whenever conversation lapsed. I heard someone else’s name offered once or twice, but both Pedro and Doc seemed diffident to discuss it at length. Most likely because of my presence. The name was Merle.

Pedro didn’t say anything about it on the drive home. It wasn’t until the following week when he mentioned that Merle was Doc’s son, who’d been killed a few years earlier in a tractor accident. As I was to discover, Merle had also been Doc’s musical sidekick and the linchpin around whom his life revolved. Merle’s death broke Doc’s heart. It doesn’t seem like he ever fully recovered either.

Before Doc stormed the ramparts of the international folk revival of the ‘60s, he’d not only played old-timey with Pedro and Frog, but he’d also hoisted a Les Paul in local rockabilly bands. As a blind man with no employment options, putting food on the table for his family seemed impossible. Doc rose to the challenge by employing his only marketable skill: guitar playing. It was a hardscrabble existence, hand-to-mouth. The Watsons were so poor that Pedro himself bought the Watson’s firstborn son, Merle, the first pair of shoes they boy ever owned. This was something never mentioned by Doc himself in subsequent meetings through the years, but the fondness he had for Pedro was apparent. It wasn’t just the “old mates who used to be in the same band” type of familiarity, it was a “you were there when we had nothing” camaraderie. Despite Pedro’s abandonment of music and descent into chronic alcoholism, Doc always had a kind word for or about Pedro.

Anyhow, I left Boone in the autumn of 1988. I spent the next few years wandering around the globe… Australia, Massachusetts, England, Washington and finally back to Boone, North Carolina. By this point I knew who Doc was. I’d bought several of his albums, which were hit-and-miss. I loved the live one with him and his son, Doc & Merle Onstage, surely the greatest acoustic live album ever recorded. Some of his more produced efforts left me baffled. They still do. More on that later.

In the early ‘90s, I spent the summers working with Pedro again. We traveled to Deep Gap a few more times to do some type of landscaping or lawn mowing at Doc’s, but it wasn’t a regular thing. If I saw him, I didn’t pester him with questions; those of you who know me will surely realize that was probably the greatest accomplishment of my life. I wanted to ask him EVERYTHING!

I saw Doc perform every chance I got from this point on. Didn’t matter whether it was a bluegrass festival or a hole in the wall in a university town, I was there if possible. I would often ask Pedro along. He always declined. He’d tell me to send my regards to Doc, though.

A few times after a gig, I pushed my way through the crowd (must have always been perplexing and a bit overwhelming for a blind man to have drunken college students slapping him on the back and bawling exhortations in his ear) and whisper Pedro’s greetings to Doc. The look of puzzled resignation would leave Doc’s face and he’d break into a grin. He only remembered me as Pedro’s friend and would say, “Hey, young feller, how is Pedro?”

I’ve seen Doc Watson more times than any other performer… easily 30 to 40 shows (also in the running are Flat Duo Jets and Treat Her Right). And everywhere from grand theatres in Europe to auditoriums at Northern colleges to fish houses in the hills of North Carolina. I have to say, though, that the best place to see Doc was in a vacuum store on King Street in Boone.  A pal of mine, Noel, lived over a store called Highway Robbery, which was on the ground floor. Beneath that store was an underground vacuum shop owned by a fellow named Jim. He played standup bass in Doc’s local band. I’d be going to pay Noel a visit when I’d hear this flurry of notes coming up the stairwell from the underground shop. I’d hurriedly hoof downstairs and find a seat for myself on the windowsill or a vacant stool. Doc would be in there with an assorted group of players, either for an impromptu jam or a rehearsal for an upcoming Watagua County show. I’d sit for hours, listening to songs I have yet to hear on record and stories that will disappear forever now that Doc has passed.

Those will always be my fondest memories of Doc. Lazy summer afternoons with some local good ol’ boys who weren’t anywhere near in his class, but they were his friends… I’ve listened to his Grammy award winning albums – Then & Now and Two Days In November in particular – and while they are impeccably produced and feature world-class musicians like Norman Blake, I can’t help but feel a bit put off by the slickness. I much prefer the down home charm of the boys who struggled to keep up with Doc and were content to just put down the beat so he could vault off of that.

Or when Doc played by himself. He’d play bass runs with his thumb and pick outrageously fast melodies with his other fingers… I have yet to hear the like. I never got to see Doc with Merle, but I’ve seen him with accompanists like Jack Lawrence or his own grandson Richard Watson and while they don’t get in the way (like some of the vaunted musicians on the above mentioned albums), I am not sure they ever added anything. Doc was the whole package. As musician, not to mention personality. He could wrap an audience around his little finger with a joke or anecdote.

At the conclusion of rehearsal in the vacuum shop, I’d shyly slide forward and say “hi” to Doc, letting him know it was Pedro’s friend. He’d never learned my name (probably ‘cause I never told him; Pedro only introduced us properly that one time in 1988), but he’d recognize my voice and always grin and say, “Hey, young feller, how’s that old rascal?“ Then I’d leave Jim’s vacuum store to go up to the second floor to visit my chum, where I’d find Noel sitting on the front roof, smoking cigarettes. He’d have spent the afternoon listening to the Doc as well, the stairwell forming a perfect acoustic conduit, funneling Doc’s notes crystal clear upstairs. Noel and I would just grin at each other and shake our heads in wordless communion, knowing we’d just heard a Doc Watson concert for free that nobody else had witnessed.

When I heard the news today, I looked for some video of Doc and found one from 1991, which is the era I knew him from. While he was a bit past his prime by this point, he could still pick 99.9% of the other guitar players in this world into the ground… not that it was ever a competition for Doc. Just saying he had most of his skills intact as far as the fretboard goes. I think he’d even added some lows to his vocal range that he didn’t have earlier in his career. It gave his singing a nice warm quality, cutting the highs in just the right way.

Regardless, as I watched the video of him, I admit that I cried. Not so much for Doc, but for myself. Why should I mourn Doc? He had a rich, full life. Not many boys from the hills of North Carolina did what he did, saw what he saw and just plain revolutionized music the way that he did (another western Carolina boy comes to mind: Earl Scruggs). I cried because of what it means. It means that time is marching on and there ain’t a damn thing I can do about it. I can kiss my twenties and thirties goodbye once and for all. I cried selfishly because I’m never going to be able to see Doc strut his stuff onstage again.

The last time I saw Doc play live was about a decade ago at the Flynn Theatre in Burlington, Vermont. It was okay, but I could tell Doc had lost a step. I heard him perform the Moody BluesNights In White Satin for the first time that night (although apparently he’d played it for decades after Merle turned him onto the song back in 1968) and could only wish his voice wasn’t quite so strained. Thankfully, I have far richer memories than that last show.

I’ll leave you with probably the funniest/strangest/warmest memory I have of Doc. I was washing my hands in the bathroom at the local Hardee’s hamburger franchise in Boone in the late ‘90s. Suddenly the door swung open and I saw a woman (Doc’s daughter) push the elderly gentleman inside. Doc looked a mite befuddled and his voice piped up, “Can someone lead me to the urinal?” I gently took him by the arm and said, “Right this way, Doc.” His face broke into a smile that resembled the sun breaking through the clouds. He said, “Hey there, young feller, how’s Pedro?”

Arthel Lane ”Doc” Watson
2. maaliskuuta 1923 – 29. toukokuuta 2012