DEEP GAP, N.C. Pickin’ in the living room of Doc Watson’s mountain home, his grandson Richard can barely play his own part for watching his grandfather’s nimble fingers.
Richard notes how the master flat-picker, blind since infancy, forms the chords, where he puts the words to the music and how he moves his fingers so quickly.
“Paw will get to playing these lightning-fast runs, and it’s hard to remember what I’m supposed to do and keep watching him,” he says.
Doc nearly retired 15 years ago, heartbroken over the death of his son Merle Richard’s father in a tractor accident at age 36. Had that happened, Richard who didn’t begin playing seriously until after his father died might not have picked up a guitar. A musical tradition that runs deep in the family might have died.
But Doc’s love of music proved stronger than his grief. Grandfather and grandson last year recorded the aptly titled, Grammy-nominated “Third Generation Blues” (Sugar Hill Records) and now tour together.
“It wasn’t meant for me to retire,” Doc says. He was inspired to continue playing, he says, by a dream the night before Merle’s funeral in which Merle told him “keep going.”
“Third Generation Blues” displays Doc’s love of all kinds of music, including “Moody River,” a tragic ballad that Pat Boone recorded in 1961; Jimmie Rodgers’ “Train Whistle Blues”; Tim Hardin’s classic “If I Were a Carpenter”; the covered and re-covered “House of the Rising Sun”; and a melancholy version of Ira and George Gershwin’s “Summertime.” Two inspirational gospels that appeared on Doc’s CD “On Praying Ground” also show up here: “Uncloudy Day” and “Precious Lord Take my Hand.”
Doc sings all the songs with Richard on guitar and T. Michael Coleman, who played with Doc and Merle, on bass. Doc occasionally picks up the harmonica.
Richard and Doc first performed publicly together at the 1990 Merlefest, the annual music festival in North Wilkesboro that Doc started in 1988. Richard says it was five years or so before he was good enough to play more than a couple of songs with his grandfather.
Doc, 77, a five-time Grammy winner and recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, sets a high standard.
“He could probably be called the first, great modern flat-picker,” says Scott Nygaard, associate editor of Acoustic Guitar magazine. “His playing when he came on the scene in the early ‘60s really blew everyone away. He influenced a whole generation of musicians, both with his guitar-playing and his musicianship in general.”
Doc showcases his eclectic musical tastes traditional Appalachian ballads, blues, gospel and old pop standards at Merlefest. “The festival has really introduced a lot of people to different kinds of music because he’s so open to including all kinds of music,” Mr. Nygaard says.
Even after working together 10 years, Richard, a large man with dark hair and beard, says his grandfather’s talent still intimidates him. There’s also the nagging fear that others expect him to take his father’s place.
“It’s all building up to meeting their reputations,” says Richard, who only quit his day job in contract construction in August.
There’s no reason to worry, Doc says. “He may feel a little overwhelmed, but I don’t think he actually feels intimidated.”
Replies Richard: “Everybody that’s picked with you says you intimidate them, and that includes some of the best.”
Richard, 33, is still trying to find his way between his grandfather’s talent and his father’s. Merle, Doc says, could play all forms of guitar: flat-picking, finger picking and slide. When Merle’s fingers got to flying over the strings, even Doc says he had a hard time keeping up.
And then there was Merle’s character: “As a father, if I could have had his attributes, I’d be a better man. There were things he done that I left undone. But hindsight’s 20/20,” Doc says.
Doc’s modest, one-story house sits on a hill with woods behind it. There are family photos on the walls, and the guitars are kept in the basement.
The liner photos on “Third Generation Blues” are a mix of what was and is inside, a photo of Merle playing with a young Richard, and on the cover, Richard and Doc. Both photos were taken by Doc’s wife, Rosa Lee.
“If I had half a thimbleful of the wisdom I have gained since Merle died when I was a young man …,” Doc says, his voice trailing off. “But there’s no use to reminisce about what you wished you had.”
Doc says Richard must find his own identity as a guitar player.
“You want some of your dad’s musical flavor in your music, but you also want some original Richard Watson in it,” he tells him. “If you develop it well, you will be on the same level.”
But Doc’s not always so serious. He recalled the night a heckler wouldn’t let up.
“I remember my first beer, too, buddy,” Doc responded, as the audience cracked up.
That prompted a segue into Watson’s first wine, the sacramental wine his mother made for the old-time Baptist church his family attended. Doc was just 5 he was the sixth of nine children when he found jars under his two oldest brothers’ bed. The lids were loose, to prevent explosion should the fermentation run amok. “It smelt like the best grape juice I’d ever smelt,” he says.
His mother found him on the front porch as he took his third pull. “The world was a-turning that way and this way. I was so sick. I laid flat on my belly on that porch,” Doc says, laughing.
“I remember the taste of it clearly yet, like good grape juice with a tang, not overly sweet.”
Besides his music, the other pillar of Doc’s life is Rosa Lee, whom he married when she was 15 and he 23. Doc would come by Rosa Lee’s home to pick and sing with her father, Gaither Carlton. His first gift to her was her favorite gum, delivered by a mutual friend.
“She saw what little good there was in me and there was little,” Doc says. “I’m awful glad she cared about me, and I’m awful glad she married me. But interviews don’t need to go too deep.”
Merlefest will be held April 27 to 30. Performers include Willie Nelson, Etta Baker and Gillian Welch. For ticket information, contact: 800-343-7857. Web sites: www.merlefest.org and www.sugarhillrecords.com