"MEMORIES OF DOC WATSON"
(March 3, 1923 - May 29, 2012)
It seems a tad ironic that while down in Florida last week, I would first hear that Doc Watson had taken a fall, was in the hospital and in serious trouble. Doc used to refer to me as " That Fella Down In Florida ... a good ol boy and picker to boot." I don't get down to Florida that much any more, when I am there though, musical memories of Doc and more folkies are "sure as your living" going to cross my mind. Being called a "picker to boot" by the likes of a MUSICIAN like Doc Watson, is as good it could ever get for this now certified old boy of 65. Yes sir "as sure as your living " .... (Doc would say that when he wanted to make a point crystal clear)
There will be stories, songs, tributes, dissertations and most likely festivals from now till the end of time (as there should be) about Arthel "Doc" Watson, the living legend from Deep Gap. North Carolina, who as of May 29,2012 no longer lives among us. Doc will however always live in the hearts and minds of anyone who was lucky enough to hear him play, sing, or speak. His speaking voice was as musical as all get out. I could listen to him just talk for hours and one time I was lucky enough to have that happen. Just the two of us alone in a room, for well over an hour or so, talking about anything and everything. Look up resonance or tone in the dictionary and it could be illustrated by his picture. Couple that resonance and tone with the well chosen words and you get the true voice of sincerity. That was just his way.
I first heard that voice and guitar about 1969 or '70, when I was switching from a Rock & Roll guitar player to a dyed in the wool folkie. Dylan went electric and I went gas I suppose. Not that I was a stranger to folk music. The first record I ever had, when I was three years old, was the Weaver's Goodnight Irene. From there it was a Weavers set of 78's, On Top Of Old Smokey, Shenandoah and Burl Ives etc. Fast forward to a New Years Eve gig at the Mastic Beach Yacht Club in 1963, I decided to do a set of folk music with my brand new Harmony Sovereign Flattop, 'cause folk music was enjoying a revival. About three songs into my set, just as Stewball was nobly rounding the stretch, the old folks who wanted to dance got a little ugly! Kenny Vitellaro the accordion player, suggested with a voice of alarm," I think we better get back to dance music" ... Dejected, I put down the Harmony, picked up my Les Paul and rejoined the Del-Fis as Blue Moon, Blue Tango and My Blue Heaven were dispatched rapidly to soothe the Arthur Murrayites.
I believe the first record I latched onto of Doc's was "On Stage" a live album and I think live was always the best way to hear him. Not that he made shabby records, no way, no how, no sir! Some albums may have had better songs than others, but whether he was flat picking old time fiddle tunes like Billy In The Low Ground at the speed of light, Travis picking and greatly improving the Delmore Brother's, Deep River Blues, singing Jimmie Rodgers blue yodels, doing fine instrumental standards, jazz, swing, rockabilly or anything he set his mind to, it was just a flatout great joy and inspiration to hear him. Fortunately we have all those recordings. These last few days, thanks to songwriter pal Fred Koller, I've been listening to board mixes from live concerts through Doc's five decades of performing. What great memories and musical treasures.
I'll never forget the first time I went to one his concerts, call me late to the party. as it was in the mid 70's when Long Island picking pal Carl Sandbeck and I ventured to the Bottom Line Club in NYC . The Bottom Line was located in the original location of Gerde's Folk City so Doc must of been right at home as he had been playing there since the early '60s. It was him and Merle that night, and those guitars were just miked and ringing like bells. We had a table close to the stage and the thing that struck me the most,was the sight of Doc's forearm. It was like a limb of an oak tree moving in rock solid time ...Windy and Warm, Salt Creek, Here's To Daddy Klaxton ....Don't Let Your Deal Go Down.
ORANGE BLOSSOM SPECIAL
When I moved to Florida in November of 1977. I had been performing as an acoustic 6 & 12 string guitarist folkie for a year or two. I fell in with a nice group of like minded musicians in the Tampa Bay area who played folk. bluegrass and some original tunes. I was also writing a few tunes then, nothing very serious, but writing whatever came to mind. One little silly diddy I wrote was called "I'd Like To Be A Barcus Berry" A Barcus Berry was the first transducer type of pickup for acoustic guitars they were cutting edge technology in the early 70's. Vibrations of the top and the bridge were turned into a fairly realistic acoustic string sound. My purpose of writing the tune was not to celebrate the technology, but rather to fantasise about a way to get closer to artists who inspired me. It went something like this ...
I'd Like To Be A Barcus Berry
Hiding Inside Of Leo's Guitar
Soaking Up The Vibes Going Pretty Far
Sittin' There , Without A Care ....
And I'd Like To Be A Spruce Tree
Destined To Sit On Doc Watson's Knee
I Know He'd Take Good Care Of Me
He's A Good Ol Boy
And A Picker To Boot !
Like I said plain silly...
Leo of course is Leo Kottke, another guitar inspiration of mine ,but Leo didn't use Barcus Berry's
He used Bill Lawrence Magnetic Pickups . Didn't matter though its the folk process
The last verse involved being a mic and looking into Sweet Judy's Blue Eyes. which if you ever looked
close you know why Steve Stills wrote the song he did .....
One friend also wanted to promote some name act concerts and did a series of them for the Special Olympics. He booked the Doc Watson trio of Doc, Merle & T Michael in a High School auditorium and I was asked to help out. McDonalds was a Special Olympic sponsor and they supplied a motor coach for Doc to use as a dressing room. Somehow I got to be Doc's lead boy that night, a job Merle or Michael usually did.
We were out on the bus after the first show which was a long one ( there were two other acts and a film on the Special Olympics ) Well somebody let a whole slew of fans aboard. It was mild pandemonium and as patient and gracious as Doc was, I could tell he was not comfortable answering a lot of insipid questions that most of this crowd was asking him. When one guy put his autograph book in Doc's hand, I could tell he had just about had it. He turned to me and said . Ken can you take me to some place quiet, and so we slipped out. I think they thought he was going to the rest room. I found a room for us that had a few chairs and desks in it and there we sat for well over an hour. No one ever found us and Doc talked about almost everything under the sun moon and stars. It was quite a revelation for me. All the while though he was also listening and occasionally commenting to both the Green Grass Revival bluegrass band and "Brother Gove" which is what he called troubadour Gove Scrivenor back then. I'm assuming he liked my company enough as he never asked to leave until it was time for him to do his second show.
MOMMA DON'T ALLOW NO GITAR PICKIN' AROUND HERE
Merle, Gove, Michael & Doc Just Flat Tearing It Up .... Look at that grin on Merle!
ONE, TWO, THREE, .... FOUR!
They did a return visit for the same concert the following year, and by now I had already opened the Clearwater Guitar Gallery with my soon to be wife Anne Orologas. It was a guitar specialty shop and we did small concerts in the store that could seat about 50 folks. We had hoped someday to be able to expand or promote larger ones with groups like Doc and the boys, and other national touring acoustic acts. Anne and I brought along three Guitar Gallery T Shirts for Doc and the boys and to our surprise when we arrived found Doc had expanded the group by one, He was a real young kid with a mountain of jet black hair and reminded me of a young Clarence White. He was a real firecracker and played mandolin for the trio, with all the fire and intensity of the rest, but then to play with Doc, you would expect no less. That was the first time I had met Marty Stuart.
I also recall that night the sound system was causing a lot of problems in both the house and monitor systems. Doc asked the "good buddy back on the board" for some changes and with each adjustment it seemed to get worse. After a couple of nasty feedback squeals (a nightmare for all) then a whole lot of electric hash , Doc yelled out "Man that sounds like green sticks on my fireplace." They took a little break while the sound guys scrambled to fix things. They never did find all the problems, as there were occasional gremlins showing up for the rest of the night, but the show went on,with Marty Stuart having way too much fun up there. It was the shape of things to come for Marty's future country career as Doc and the boys just rocked out with him.
About two years later Anne & my dreams of a concert venue came true and we were able to build a 400 seat theatre (using a whole lot of our own and friends labor) next door to our store, Construction took a few months and we did not actually get our Certificate of Occupancy from the City of Clearwater until the day before our first concert which was none other than Doc Watson and a sellout for two shows. Anne had already booked several months of shows from my wishlist of acts so we were really rolling the dice.
I was wearing a lot of hats then and one of them was electing myself to be the soundman. I felt very confident I could do the job, as I knew what guitars and acoustic intruments were supposed to sound like. However I was aware that sometimes freaky things can happen, and the last thing I wanted was to upset the good Doctor and have him use that Green sticks line on me. Our afternoon sound check went real smooth and within twenty minutes they were completely satisified with the levels, the eq, the monitor balance etc. Nothing was touched on the soundboard which was in an open booth high up in the back of the hall. Off to dinner they went.
I still can recall all that excitement of watching all these folks fill up the place as showtime approached. I also MCd from the stage. then ran to the back of the hall, climbed up my ladder and we were off. Steve Stange & TJ Wangerman. the opening act came out did a short set and all was well. Now it was time for the main event. They came out to a roar from the crowd and started off with a lively number ( I believe it was Sadie from the then new Red Rockin' Chair album) Then there was a long pause as Doc turned to speak with Michael and I could hear him say "What happened to our soundcheck?" Boom a shot to my heart and panic set in. Michael said to him quite curtly "Just tell him what you want" There was another pause and Doc leaned into his mic and said "Say good buddy back on the board, could we have about 2 db less of 250K in the monitors?" I reached for my 24 band monitor equalizer hoping I pulled back the right lever and that was all it took. The rest of the night was fine. Apparantly the 400 bodies that were now sitting in the seats, changed something in the way Doc heard things. At the end of the evening I asked him how was the sound. He said just fine, I told him it was my first time at a soundboard, to which he said " Well we are just going to have to come back here again man".
THE LOOK ON ANNE's FACE SAYS ALL YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT HOW THE EVENING TURNED OUT
Another funny thing happened at the end of the evening. We were a Gallagher Guitar Dealer and had a Doc Watson model on special display in the hall lobby. As they were heading for the door I said. "Doc. we have your guitar". "Say WHAT? he said, as he stopped in his tracks. I clarified and grabbed it off the stand, and then like an audicious idiot, attempted to play Deep River Blues on it while standing on one leg and bracing up the other one to hold the guitar. It's a song I had been playing for years and could do it in my sleep if I was sitting down or the guitar had a strap. I started to loose my balance and really foul up the playing, but Doc was intrigued and asked me to hand him the instrument. He felt it all over said "Yes that's the right width neck, then he asked for a chair. He sat down and proceeded to play for a few minutes while Merle and Michael waited patiently.
The next afternoon was a Saturday. The store was open and we were flying high from the night before. when around 3 PM in they came. They had a day off between the next show (I think up in Jacksonville) and well they were musicians and we had a store full of instruments that Merle and Michael wanted to check out. I asked Doc if he wanted to try anything and he said "I don't think I have a notion to pick today". Then Merle spotted the Benedetto arch tops. Next thing you know he and Doc are picking country tunes on two jazz boxes and I'm playing my Guild F 50R along with them. I'll never forget what a blast it was to play Tom Paxton's song. Did You Hear John Hurt. along with Doc & Merle. Doc ran his hands all over the Benedetto and said " My it's a pretty thing isn't it?" He also played my Guild that day loved the tone, but said the neck was just a tad to narrow for him. They played the two Gallaghers we had in stock and probably every guitar in the shop worthy of their talent. All in all they stayed for close to store closing time.
They returned for another show the following year. I think it was January or February of 1983 Again it was a sellout. All went real well Doc was turning 60 in March (which I thought was old then) and it was the last time I saw Merle. We got into financial difficulty with the hall ( We had no liquor license and without the ability to sell liquor, many shows were running in the red. There was talk of us having to close up and the St Pete Times did a story about it. They had contacted several of the acts that had played there like Arlo Guthrie, Tom Paxton, The Seldom Scene, to get their opinions on the hall and I still can recall the leadoff line to the story it was a quote from Doc. " GOD WHAT A GREAT PLACE TO PLAY THAT WAS" That meant a lot even though prophetic as we did finally have to close the hall or loose both it and our music store.
The following year I did a concert in Tampa with Doc. After twenty years on the road with his father, Merle had left the group and a fine fellow named Jack Lawrence took his place. I was not there to do sound but rather was their opening act. I brought along my "GUITARSENAL" as I called it then. Three 12 Strings, A Seven String, A six string, A parlor guitar and a double neck acoustic. I probably spent as much time changing instruments as I did playing. When I play Windy & Warm on my 12 string, that is tuned two whole steps below concert, it takes on the sound of a Russian National Anthem. I call it Chilly & Cold. When Doc did his set he said "Now when Brother Ken plays this song, he puts a frosty chill in the air with it, but we are gonna warm you up a bit with this tune and dedicate it to Brother Ken 'cause he is a picker."
What a rush hearing Doc say that ... not only was I a picker in Doc's mind, I was also now a brother .... as sure as your living that's a major high my friend. Sadly though, that was the last time I ever saw Doc. I have no good answer why either. A short time later Merle died in a tractor accident. Before he did pass on though he did one more record with his Dad in Nashville, which was where we moved in 1987. It's called Riding That Midnight Train. A bluegrass flavored album with a great supporting cast of Marc O'Connor, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush and Alan O'Bryant. My dear friend in Nashville, Rich Adler, enginered and mixed it. Midnight Train won a Grammy for the Best Folk Recording.
Sometime in the mid 90's I got a call from Frank Nixon, a former guitar student of mine. He had just seen Doc play at a festival in North Carolina and Frank spoke with Doc about the first time he ever saw him perform at the Clearwater Music Hall, Doc's reply was "I remember it well, man that was a fine place to play. Ken Spooner ran it, how is that ol boy doing?" Frank filled him in on my where abouts and what I was doing ...
In 1995, Doc's longtime bassist, T. Michael Coleman took Doc back to the music he played with a rock a billy country band around Boone before the Smithsonian's Ralph Rinzler convinced him to hit the folk circuit in the early 60's. Rock A Billy is what got me playing guitar in 1956 and Singin' The Blues which is on the Docabilly CD, was the first song I taught myself to play on the guitar. Along for the Rock A Billy ride with the good doctor are Duane Eddy, Jack Lawrence Marty Stuart, Junior Brown, Mike Auldrich on guitars and such. The late Larry Knechtel (of the famed LA Wrecking Crew studio group) on piano and two friends of mine, the late great Roy Huskey "the Heartbeat Of America" on bass (who everyone who ever knew him still misses) and drummer, percusionist Pat McInerney. Pat has played on many of my demos and we also did some live shows together. I am really glad T Michael persuaded Doc to give Rock A Billy one more spin, Its a fun record
On our two day ride back to Nashville, I seemed to get scant and conflicting reports on Doc's condition. Last Sunday however the reports were very grim, only to be followed the next day by the report that Doc pulled through, but remained in critical condition. On Memorial Day, Rich Adler came over our place for a barbecue. Our conversation included lots of Doc memories, which is what gave me the idea to put my memories down on this page regardless of the outcome. I was inspired by his life, his art and very lucky and honored to have known him a little bit. I know that my story is far from unique and that he touched the lives of thousands of players and listeners through the years. In the New York Times Obit they mention Doc saying onetime he could of been just as happy being an auto mechanic. I recall him saying almost that same thing to me the night we had the long talk between shows. I'm paraphrasing here but I believe he also said he could of been happy as carpenter or cabinet maker. I think I said something along the lines of "Doc, I have worked as a auto mechanic, a fisherman, a furniture builder and a musician. With the quality of music you have made all these years, I think a musician was the happiest path you could of taken and look at how many other folks you have made happy by it. One listen to him and you will believe that too ....as sure as your living.
MERLEFEST APRIL 2012
HERE'S TWO TUNES, RECORDED OFF THE SOUNDBOARD
There never was a horse like the Tennessee Stud & There never will be another Doc Watson
And a very fitting closer