Banjo Friday is back!
Happy to say that, but it’s a sad occasion in many ways, because I’m coming back with a tribute to the late great Doc Watson, who passed away on Tuesday at age 89. Of course, Doc was known first as a virtuoso guitar flatpicker—a guitarist who could play with the utmost musicality at unreal speeds: a combination that’s hardly ever found, because usually one of those traits is sacrificed for the other. Not the case with Doc Watson—he was a flatpicking phenomenon; I read a comment about his playing that it was based on “an economy of motion & an economy of sound”—that’s beautifully put. & secondarily, Doc was known as a singer—a rich, casual baritone voice that evinced his good humor & his passion as the circumstance required. As was the case with his guitar picking, he just sang so easily.
But there was more to Doc Watson as a musician beyond the flatpicking & singing. He was also a masterful fingerpicking guitarist who played in a two-finger style (thumb & index finger) much in the Merle Travis tradition—in fact, the video I posted on Wednesday, Doc’s version of “Deep River Blues,” was one of his well-known fingerpicking numbers. & he played a mean harmonica.
But Doc Watson also was an excellent banjo player who also played that instrument in a two-finger “up-picking” style. In fact, the banjo was Doc’s first instrument—interesting how that’s true for so many of the great traditional musicians—tho the oddest thing I found out about Doc’s early playing days is that at one time he was flatpicking fiddle tunes on a Gibson Les Paul.
I’ve loved Doc Watson’s music since I first heard him play & sing “Tennessee Stud” & “Way Downtown” on the great Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, released by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, but featuring so many wonderful traditional musicians—not just Doc, but Mother Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin & more. A man who overcame infant blindness to become not only a virtuoso musician, but a beloved figure & an important proponent of traditional music, Watson will be truly missed.
I wanted to showcase Doc’s banjo playing, so I picked his version of “Shady Grove.” I’ll admit that the internet has some disagreement as to who’s actually playing banjo on this recording: while many sources (including Abigail Washburn, if I understand her statement correctly) attribute the banjo on this track to Doc, I’ve also seen at least one source say it was his son Merle (a virtuoso player, again known more for his guitar work) & at least one credit it to Don Stover. So there you have it! But trust me, Doc could play some banjo!
In addition, I thought it would be appropriate to feature a video of Doc jamming with Earl Scruggs, another master musician who passed away recently, & one I regret not commemorating earlier on Banjo Friday; finally, since most of the guitar breaks on that video are done by Merle Watson & Randy Scruggs, I’ve added one of Doc flatpicking & trading leads with jack Lawrence, who was his playing partner after the tragic & untimely death of Merle in a farm accident in 1985. To memorialize his son, Doc started MerleFest, the great “traditional plus” music festival held each year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.
Doc played with real joy & passion—in combination with his incredible chops, those qualities made him a player for a generation. Hope you enjoy this wonderful music.
Pic shows the Doc Watson sculpture on the corner of King and Depot Streets in Boone,
North Carolina. The plaque on the bench reads "Just one of the People". The photo was posted to Wiki Commons by user Geologik, & is made available under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.