What to say about Doc Watson, who died Tuesday at 89? You could call him the best flatpicker this country has ever produced and not be far off.
I read once that he had about 3,000 songs kicking around in his head, ready to play at a moment’s notice. He had a few thousand more in there that required just a quick dust off if he wanted to perform them. So maybe you could say he was a genius, too.
His eyes didn’t work, but his ears sure did. You can wonder if his vivid, brilliant musicality was in some way charged by his blindness. Doc’s world was one of sounds, so he made the best—really, the best—of it.
I remember the first time I heard him. A friend in college played for me a tape of him performing with Bill Monroe, the mandolin-chopping, high-hollering father of bluegrass. Doc’s picking knocked me out—so fast, so clean. And his voice—sturdy, simple and welcoming, like a farmhouse dining room table. And then the jocular back-and-forth with Monroe between songs, implying that all those notes, all those melodies, really weren’t that big a deal. Just country music.
Doc’s music grew on my quickly. I studied the way his fingers moved around the fretboard, and realized they didn’t actually move around that much. Like any expert craftsman, he did just what was needed, nothing more. But then I’d look at the tablature of some of his songs and realize, Whoa, those subtle hands were plenty busy.
I used to play his version of “Frankie and Johnny.” I got a few of the licks down, but what came out of my guitar sounded nothing like what came out of his.
One thing musicians in Doc’s line of work have going for them is that what they play on stage in front of thousands they can play the same way on their front porch. That’s the beauty of an acoustic guitar, a wooden box strung with wire. I picture Doc finishing his set at the Newport Folk Festival, say, climbing into a car and rolling over to a friend’s house, no doubt a fiddler or banjo player. They sit on the porch, pull their instruments from their cases and dazzle no one but each other while looking like they’re hardly doing a thing.