The Circle Unbroken: Doc Watson

This interview with Doc Watson is reprinted from Dallas Observer, Aug. 8-14, 1996. The photo was taken previously in Nashville in 1988. I learned “Deep River Blues” that day sitting between Doc Watson and Chet Atkins (and Leo Kottke on the floor). Then recorded it twice on my albums Famous & Poor (1990) and Sixty Goddammit (2016). Photo by Kip Lott

Doc Watson—one of the purest and most soulful figures in country music history—has never been allowed on commercial radio, denied the chance to reap teen coin.
“If it had been done all over,” says Doc today, from his porch in Deep Gap, North Carolina, “I think ‘Freight Train Boogie’ might have hit the top of the charts. Somebody had been feeling Merle out once. And he said, ‘Dad, what do you think about goin’ commercial?’ And I said, ‘You want an honest answer, son?’ He said, ‘Yeah, and I hope it’s the way I feel about it.’ I said, ‘I don’t want no part of that rat race. Let’s do what we’re doin’ and try to stay alive in the business.’ He said, ‘Them’s my thoughts, exactly.’”
Like Frank Sinatra, Doc Watson stands head and shoulders above all others, epitomizing an entire segment of American music. He is not a songwriter, but the preeminent interpreter of his musical landscape. That includes the whole kettle of Southern folk music—Smoky Mountain rags, waltzes, hymns, ballads, Jimmy Rogers yodels, Carter Family standards and bluegrass.
Now 73, Watson’s performances are the standard by which such music can be measured. His ethnic roots are a ringing rebuke to a country music industry watered down by corporate homogenization. He can breathe such vitality into a sad civil war ballad, you’d swear he just returned from battle. When he sings a 19th century song about wife-drowning (a whole genre), you might consider him a suspect. “Maybe I am an interpreter. When I do a new song, it’ll come out Doc Watson, it won’t come out a copy of somebody. If you’re a natural musician with some god-given talent, an arrangement just comes out. Unless you’re a copycat, you won’t learn it exactly the way the original person played it.”
Watson never considered his own potential to become a songwriter. “I don’t have the gift for poetry,” he claims. “Melody would be easier to come by for me. The only two songs I wrote that I’m proud of are ‘Call of the Road,’ on the Southbound album, and ‘Life is Like A River’ on [recent Sugar Hill album] My Dear Old Southern Home.
Doc Watson’s oeuvre includes 30 albums under his own signature, or with son Merle. Many are minor masterpieces. His current label, Sugar Hill, has just reissued four on CD. When questioned how much an average Doc Watson album sells, he sighs, “You’ve asked me a question I couldn’t answer if the Lord told me.”
His personal favorites are Southbound, Doc & Merle Watson Onstage, and the recent Remembering Merle. These albums reflect the collaboration with his late son Merle, who still dominates Doc’s thoughts. They worked as a duo since the so-called folk boom of the early 60’s, when a decent touring wage became possible. Times got tougher in the Woodstock era. “We paid dues from ’64, but there was a period when Merle and I had a pretty rough time of it in the late 60’s. The music had a low ebb.”
This changed in 1972, after Watson appeared on the landmark Will The Circle Be Unbroken. The three-record album, in which the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band paid homage to their heroes, went gold. “They didn’t invite Merle to work on the Circle album, which made me very angry,” remembers Doc. “But it was one of the best things that happened to good, down-to-earth, solid, old-time country hillbilly music.”
Circle goosed the twilight careers of pioneers Merle Travis, Maybelle Carter, Earl Scruggs and Roy Acuff. Watson, however, never saw his royalties from United Artists Records.
But for two decades, Doc forged such a strong partnership with his son Merle—who acted as road manager/chauffeur for his blind father, as well as musical accompanist—that the loss seemed insurmountable.
“Many times, I’d been on the road [after Merle’s death in a 1985 tractor accident] and sometimes physically and sometimes with my heart, gone to my knees and said, ‘Lord, if you don’t help me with this, I can’t take it.’ Doing without Merle was one of the hardest things I’ve done in my life, on the road. But it’s becoming easier. The music, I guess, may have helped, but I’ll tell ya something. I built a utility building on the property, took me three months. That helped me as much with the grieving as anything, because I was by myself. If I felt like shedding a tear while I drove nails, I could do it. Brother, let me tell ya, without faith, I’d already be gone.”
The extraordinary guitarist Jack Lawrence has been Doc’s road partner the past decade. Watson announced he was calling it quits several times, but remains in a state of semi-retirement. He tours one-tenth of his old schedule, a dozen gigs a year. “I wanna draw some of that social security. But I’m getting better money now than before I went into retirement. And I get to be at home with mama [wife Rosa Lee] one heck of a lot more. I may do another album or two, or I may not. I’ll be straight and honest with ya. I’m not as interested in learning new stuff as I used to be. Maybe my head’s gotten a little lazy. But I still like to pick.”
“Pickin’ and grinnin’,” as ol’ Doc modestly refers to his craft, is something in which Watson has remained a superpower. Few artists retain such a peak throughout their life, but Watson’s guitar and vocal chops grew stronger each decade. Only in recent years has he delegated more of the soloing to the equally fierce Jack Lawrence. Early on, Watson was perhaps the first to transpose mountain fiddle music to guitar. His crisp flatpicking innovations pushed country acoustic guitar from its background rhythm role to the spotlight.
Never one to acquire a studio suntan, Watson’s albums are cut like traditional jazz records. Recorded live in the studio with few overdubs, immaculate conceptions with no frills or wasted budget. Reflections, the deceptively simple title of a masterpiece recorded in 1979 with Chet Atkins on RCA, sounds like it took a lifetime to produce.
“We swapped some tapes in September. I believe it was November when we did the actual session. The first day we did a full session, getting acquainted with each other. We threw that out, came back the second day, and did the album in one and a half sessions [4 1/2 hours].
“I guess you could say, in our own styles, we’re accomplished musicians. I know Chet is. He had to get used to my style and what wouldn’t collide with it. And I had to get used to his style and not feel overshadowed by the man. He’s a super colossal master on the guitar.”
The Merle Watson Memorial Festival, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, reaches it’s 10th anniversary in April ’97. It was conceived by Doc’s wife, Rosa Lee, and daughter, Nancy, originally to raise funds for a memorial garden for Merle, at Wilkes Community College. It drew 40,000 people last year. MerleFest avoids hat acts, trends and Nash Vegas vulgarity. Doc is the symbolic host, leads a few jams, screens a little of the talent.
“I get up there and welcome everybody Thursday night when it’s kicked off. It’s family-oriented. You can bring your children and not be afraid there’ll be somebody out of his mind on drugs that’ll harm ’em. I play a blues set with my grandson, and a bunch of people on their shows. I’m kinda woven through the festival. If I’m not pickin’, I’m walkin’ around talkin’ to people. I do not help run it, I’m just there. I wouldn’t have it no other way.”

–Josh Alan Friedman