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Bluegrass' patron saint

Doc Watson still packs auditoriums with devoted fans. But at 84, he knows he can't play forever.

January 30, 2008|Tim Warren | Washington Post

GREENSBORO, N.C. -- Doc Watson is at an age when the old-timey songs he plays have a particular poignancy, particularly the church songs that tell of being "carried away" or "going over to the other side." Or think of "Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar," the song by one of his favorite groups from the 1930s, the Delmore Brothers, with its mournful last verse:

I'm telling this world goodbye

I'm telling this world goodbye

I'm telling the world and my dear little girl

I'll soon tell them all goodbye.

He has had a long and fabulous career, becoming one of the most influential folk musicians of the last half-century, but he is turning 85 on March 2 -- and even Doc Watson cannot go on forever. In the last few years, his deep, warm baritone has cracked when he's belted out the yodeling songs of another favorite, Jimmie Rodgers. His guitar runs still astonish, but not as often, and he'll make a fingering mistake that would have been unthinkable in his earlier days, when he practically rewrote the book on playing acoustic guitar.

That's why for Doc Watson fans, the fact that he is still performing is both a blessing and an occasion for anxiety. He has been indomitable, almost superhuman, and his stature in bluegrass, in folk music and in country music cannot be matched.

T. Michael Coleman, who played bass with Watson for 15 years before joining the Seldom Scene, recalled when other famous musicians would encounter Watson.

"People like Paul Simon, even, they'd be so nervous," said Coleman. "One time when we were touring, we ran into [jazz guitarist] Pat Metheny. He was like, 'Oh my God, that's Doc Watson.' He was afraid to say anything. The respect musicians have for him is amazing."

Marty Stuart, the ace mandolin player and champion of traditional music, toured with Watson briefly in the 1970s. At a recent concert, Stuart watched in awe as Watson led several other musicians in an encore: "Here was this silver-haired man, looking like the patron saint of mountain music."

Doc Watson, then, cannot be ordinary. But when asked, some hours before performing here on a Friday night earlier this month, whether this is indeed his last ride, he gave a deep sigh.

He locked his blind eyes on his questioner and said finally, quietly, "I haven't the faintest idea. But I'll have to sooner or later, because my hands can't do this much longer. I can't play like I could 30 or 40 years ago. The speed's not there and the clarity's not there. My reflexes are slowing down, and there's not a thing I can do about it."

Understandably, there was an air of anticipation before the show in Greensboro. Watson was beginning his 2008 touring schedule with a gig here with frequent collaborator David Holt, and Greensboro, just a few hours' drive from his ancestral mountain house in Deep Gap, N.C., afforded a particular home-field advantage.

These were his people, the folks who have seen him perform dozens of times over the years. He also had the perfect venue. The 1,000-seat Carolina Theatre, built in 1922 and handsomely refurbished, is warm and intimate; the marquee advised that the show was sold out.

At 8 o'clock, Holt led Watson onstage to thunderous applause. Holt is a banjoist and folklorist who has immersed himself in Appalachian culture and music since moving from suburban Los Angeles in the early 1970s. He and Watson have been performing together for about 10 years, and Holt functions not only as his musical partner but also as his facilitator.

Like Coleman and nearly every other musician who has played with Watson, Holt speaks of him with reverence and sees performing with him as the musical equivalent of hitting the lottery. "When I was 17, I fell in love with his music," Holt said before the concert. "So to be 61 and having played with him the last 10 years is really special."

Peerless performer

They began the show with one of Watson's signature up-tempo numbers, "Way Downtown," and the crowd whooped as he dashed off a couple of rippling guitar licks.

When the song was finished, Holt remarked that this happened to be his 33rd wedding anniversary -- "and being a musician, I'm on the road tonight." Then he said, "Doc, when will you and Rosa Lee have your anniversary?"

Since Watson's unabashed devotion to his wife is legendary, this was a fastball served right down the middle of the plate. "In June, we'll be married 62 years," Watson answered proudly, to cheers and more applause. Then he broke into "our courtin' song," the haunting old folk ballad "Shady Grove," and some people in the crowd sang along. When he reached the final verse, his voice cracked -- not from age, it seemed, but from emotion.

A kiss from pretty little Shady Grove

Is sweet as brandy wine

And there ain't no girl in this old world

That's prettier than mine.

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