The story below is from our March/April 2017 issue. For the rest of this story and more like it subscribe today, log in to read our digital edition or download our FREE iOS app. Thank you!
Four-time Grammy winner (including two with Doc Watson for “Legacy”) David Holt is a musician, storyteller, artist, historian and radio/TV host. He learned his treasure trove of music directly from greats including Watson, Roy Acuff, Grandpa Jones and others. He is a member of the North Carolina Music Hall of Fame and has performed at more than half of the MerleFests; he plays this year on Thursday, Friday and Saturday.
This year marks the 30th celebration of MerleFest at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival began as a fundraiser for a Garden of the Senses. Doc Watson supported the cause and helped establish the festival, which is named in memory of his son, Eddy Merle Watson. In the year leading up to the first festival, Doc invited many of his and Merle’s friends to perform. And because Doc and Merle were loved by so many musicians, the festival quickly became a multiple-venue, multiple-day event. Today, the festival attracts over 100 of the world’s best musicians and more than 75,000 fans from around the globe to participate in the four-day music festival that spreads across 13 stages. And everyone shares a love for Doc and Merle.
MerleFest is a great festival, but you have to ask yourself why is there so much devotion to the memory of Doc and Merle Watson, from both fans and friends, at the annual homecoming?
I performed with Doc for 14 years and in just about every concert, whether it was 250,000 people in Golden Gate Park or 2,000 folks in Raleigh, fans would be so moved that they would yell out, “We love you, Doc,” and everyone would clap in agreement. Fans cared deeply for him, and he loved playing for them.
It was music that brought fans to Doc, but it was the way he filled each note with emotion that made them diehard fans. Doc was the most naturally musical person I ever met. He inhabited every note he played or sang. Each guitar solo told a musical story. The notes led somewhere and took you on an imaginative journey. Doc had the “three T’s of music” in abundance … timing, tone and taste. He never overplayed. He knew which notes to put in and which notes to leave out.
But the music alone doesn’t explain the devotion. Maybe it was his regal bearing and his warm inviting voice, his chiseled face and silver hair. You could sense he was honest and real. Considering his hardscrabble roots and total blindness, you had to admire the fire and fierceness inside him.
He often said that had he been sighted and could have afforded college, he would have been a mechanical engineer. Luckily for us, he followed music.
Arthel “Doc” Watson was extremely intelligent and extraordinarily talented, but because he was blind and growing up in the mountains of Western North Carolina in the 1920s and ‘30s, he had little opportunity for education beyond the eighth grade. Doc told me he felt sorry for himself until he heard Helen Keller. He was 10 years old and attending the blind school in Raleigh. Doc was deeply moved. He realized if Helen Keller could accomplish so much being both blind and deaf, he could do anything he put his mind to. It was a turning point in his life. It was the beginning of young Arthel turning into the great Doc Watson.
Why do we hold Doc in such high esteem? Of course, because of his accomplishment, perseverance and integrity. But most of all, because of his joy in sharing his extraordinary music with us.
And so it is that we all love MerleFest because it keeps Doc and Merle’s memory and musical spirits alive. MerleFest 2017 takes place April 27-30. The full lineup is available at MerleFest.org.