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“When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the festival’s website. “Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional plus.’”
Doc Watson has said that when Merle died, he lost the best friend he would ever have.
He also relied on his wife, Rosa Lee, whom he married in 1947.
“She saw what little good there was in me, and there was little,” Watson told the AP in 2000. “I’m awful glad she cared about me, and I’m awful glad she married me.”
In a PBS NewsHour interview before a January appearance in Arlington, Va., Watson recalled his father teaching him how to play harmonica to a tune his parents had sung in church, as well as his first bus trip to New York City. Telling the stories in a folksy manner, he broke into a quiet laugh at various points. He said he still enjoyed touring.
“I love music and love a good audience and still have to make a living,” Watson said. “Why would I quit?”
Musician Sam Bush, who has performed at every Merlefest, began touring with Doc and Merle Watson in 1974, occasionally substituting for Merle when he couldn’t travel.
“I would sit next to Doc, and I would be influenced by his incredible timing and taste,” Bush said after Watson’s recent surgery. “He seems to always know what notes to play. They’re always the perfect notes. He helped me learn the space between the notes (are) as valuable as the ones you play.”
Bush said he was also intimidated when he began playing with the man he calls “the godfather of all flatpickers.”
“But Doc puts you at ease about that kind of stuff,” Bush said. “I never met a more generous kind of musician. He is more about the musical communication than showing off with hot licks.”
His blindness didn’t hold him back musically or at home.
Joe Newberry, a musician and spokesman for the N.C. Department of Cultural Resources, remembered once when his wife called the Watson home. Rosa Lee Watson said her husband was on the roof, replacing shingles. His daughter Nancy Watson said her father built the family’s utility shed.
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger of Nashville, Tenn., said Doc Watson made every song his own, regardless of its age. ‘He’s one of those lucky guys,” said Huttlinger, who studied Watson’s methods when he first picked up a guitar. “When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it — it’s Doc Watson.”
He changed folk music forever by adapting fiddle tunes to guitar at amazing tempos, Huttlinger said. “And people all over the place were trying to figure out how to do this,” he said. “But Doc, he set the bar for everyone. He said, ‘This is how it goes.’ And people have been trying for years to match that.
“He took it (the guitar) out of the background and brought it upfront as a melody instrument. We’re no longer at the back of the class. He gave the front to us.”
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