- Published on Wednesday, 30 May 2012 11:22
By Derek Manning
Doc Watson died yesterday.
He was one of those guys who, when you heard him on the radio, you might not know right away who you were listening to, but you knew you were hearing someone who was really good at what he did.
What Doc did was play and sing North Carolina mountain music.
When they were discussing him and his life this morning, the commentators spoke about his humble beginnings in a three-room house in the mountains of western North Carolina, where he grew up with eight brothers and sisters. They spoke of that with amazement in their voice.
And you know, maybe we should be amazed, although many people around here are only once-removed from such a childhood. In fact, many of you reading this now aren't even once-removed. Your story could be told with the same beginning as Doc's.
We always seem to have a soft spot for stories with humble beginnings.
What I didn't know for years and years was that Doc was blind, and had been since the age of one.
Back before the days of YouTube, about the only time you saw a picture of someone like Doc was on an album cover. So you didn't know a lot. You just listened to the music.
In an interview from several years back, though, what Doc dwelled on was not his blindness, or the three-room house that he grew up in. What he talked about was a gift from his dad.
He said, "When I was about 11 years old, my daddy made a banjo and gave it to me."
Doc said his dad told him, "Play this, and get really good at it, and one of these days maybe we can get you a better one. This might help you get through the world."
I imagine Doc's dad probably had in mind that a musical instrument would give his son a skill and some companionship to overcome his blindness.
I doubt he could foresee the rest. But who knows.
Doc eventually took his banjo skills and applied them to a mail-order guitar, which he paid for by chopping wood for his dad, and the rest is folk-music history. He became a master guitar picker with a rough-honey voice that could make a song come alive.
And, as an old musician friend of his once said, "Doc never played a song the same way once."
I think what he meant was Doc was hard to keep up with because he was always thinking up new ways to play old stuff.
Whether he was making old stuff sound new, or new stuff sound old, Doc could make you not care which was which. It was just all good stuff.
One of my favorite videos of Doc is an old back-stage set with him, Chet Atkins and Leo Kottke just sitting in chairs in a hallway, playing an impromptu version of "Last Steam Engine Train."
You know you've made the big time when you're just hangin' out with Chet between sets and trading guitar licks with the master. Doc didn't get there overnight. But he got there.
It made me think this morning, as I was listening to that old interview where Doc talked about his dad, that we don't always need as much as we think we need to have a good life.
I'd like to have met Doc's dad. He sounded like a smart man.
Smart enough to take a homemade banjo and a piece of good advice, wrap it in some love and support and then trust his son to do the rest.
Yeah, that might help you get through the world.
Derek Manning is publisher of The Daily Elk Citian.