Doc Watson plays the banjo at the 1965 Fincastle (Va.) Bluegrass Festival, among the first multi-day bluegrass festivals in the country.
I was in my late thirties the first time I saw Doc Watson perform. It was 2006 at the Mountain Song Festival in my hometown of Brevard, N.C. Doc, of course, was from just over the mountain in Deep Gap, and he was in his early 80s then. The show, a benefit for the local Boys and Girls Club, was held in the open pavilion at Brevard Music Center, and when Doc walked up on that stage and sat down with just his guitar and a microphone, the audience was so quiet you could hear the robins rustling in the trees.
Doc played a great show that afternoon, and when it was over, he headed down the stage in the middle of a standing ovation. The crowd clapped and clapped and clapped until finally one of the show’s producers went over to speak to Doc, who was, by then, outside the pavilion. They had a brief exchange, after which Doc shook his head. There would be no encore. But we clapped some more anyway. If Doc happened to be a little opinionated, if he were too tired to get back up on that stage, if he just wanted to get back on that bus and head to Deep Gap, that was OK with us. He was a music legend, of course, but around these parts, he was more than that: He was one of our own.
The Steep Canyon Rangers played that day as well, and we were proud of them too. They were local boys, and we thought of them as our own just as we did Doc, but in a slightly different way. They were new and fresh, and they made us feel upbeat, inspired, hopeful. But Doc, he made us pause and reflect. He reminded us of our grandfathers, of the preacher who stood at the courthouse and called, “God Bless You” to people as they passed by, of the man who ran Morgan Mill just off the Rosman Highway, the one who had a pet pig named Hambone and who used to give Cowtails to all the kids who stopped by, the one who left the door to his store open even when he wasn’t there so you could grab a bag of grits and leave your money on the counter. Doc was old-school like that – humble, plainspoken, real.
During the next few years, I saw Doc perform two more times, both at MerleFest, the annual music festival he established in honor of his beloved son, musician Merle. A fine musician in his own right, Merle had died in a tractor accident at the age of 36. And the last time I saw Doc was also the last time he would ever perform his musical tribute to his son.
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