On June 30th the North Carolina Museum of Art celebrates the life of one of our state’s foremost artists, Arthel “Doc” Watson. The Museum staff had long planned to make this a special day. The evening concert by the legendary guitarist was to include many of the other musicians he had been associated with, and it was to be preceded by symposia examining his music and his influence. Nevertheless, when the featured artist died just a month before the show, the museum staff had some decisions to make. In their wisdom, they decided not only to “go on with the show”, but to expand the days activities even further.
The Museum of Art is to be congratulated for this. The leaders of this fine institution may have built its reputation with higher-brow, landmark expositions of Rembrandt and Monet, but, first and foremost, they are North Carolinians who understand the power of art. By proceeding despite the death of the featured artist from Deep Gap, they acknowledge the role that artists past and present play in our lives. They recognize genius when they see it; they understand legacy; and they are bold enough to stake a claim on behalf of our state.
In Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, the Old North State has in fact lost two of our greatest musicians this spring. The similarities between the two men are striking and illustrative. Both men were born in rural western North Carolina, just 9 months and 75 miles apart, but ultimately traveled the world over before dying within two months of each other 89 years later. Both men lived long lives as celebrated musicians on the road but nevertheless found their greatest joy in long, loving marriages and wonderful children back home. Both men suffered the tragic loss of a son after each had grown to be musicians themselves and joined their Dad on stage. Both men briefly left music in their grief but, upon returning, seemed to find solace by lending a fatherly guiding hand to other musicians of their sons’ generation.
Both men completely redefined their instruments, and although these were “traditional” instruments, the very word “traditional” is misleading given the innovative techniques they developed to play them. And while they may have lived in the relative isolation of Deep Gap and Flint Hill, they had ears sensitive to influences from all over the world. One hears in their banjo and guitar licks, echo’s of everything from delta blues to Parisian jazz, making it clear that there was very little about these men that was really provincial despite the rural, humble circumstances of their birth.
Both men said “yes” when a bunch of long-haired musicians from California called in 1971 to propose a recording project called “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”. This album brought their music to a new generation, but more importantly, it showed that people of good will could overcome great differences in age, appearance, and background to find common ground, musical and otherwise. These were turbulent and polarized times in our country, and not everyone “The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band” called said “yes”. But Doc and Earl did, and everything I know of these gentle men has convinced me that they knew full well that this undertaking was about more than just music.
It was once said of Earl Scruggs, “before Earl, nobody played the banjo like that; after Earl, everybody played it like that.” This wasn’t far from the truth, though Earl himself would never make such a claim. Before Earl, the banjo was predominantly a rhythmic instrument, and often in fact a sort of comedic stage prop. After Earl, the instrument gained the respect it deserved as a noble instrument of African heritage but American birth. Right up until his death, he was an enthusiastic supporter of younger musicians like Bela Fleck who, in his innovative technique, musical breadth, and quiet manner, must have reminded Earl a little bit of himself as a young man.
Doc Watson had a similar impact with respect to the acoustic guitar. Doc’s flatpicking virtuosity, along with that of his younger contemporary Clarence White, transformed the guitar from a predominantly rhythm instrument to a featured lead instrument in bluegrass ensembles. This musical torch was then passed to great musicians like current North Carolina resident Tony Rice whose hot licks kept it burning brightly. Whether in a duet like Doc and Merle’s, a full five-piece bluegrass band, or a jam session of two dozen, every guitar player since Doc and Clarence has gotten the nod midway through the tune that means, “hey, you wanna take a lead break?”
Like Earl, Doc had traditional values but innovative tastes. The two men helped to establish a tradition of innovation, the very nature of which will ensure that each generation will continue talking to the next as part of a conversation that goes both ways. The festival Doc hosts every spring in memory of his son, has become the kickoff event for the summer festival season, and whether you’re subsequently off to Bass Mountain for bluegrass, Mount Airy for old-time, or Bonnaroo for roots-based jam-bands, you start your season with Doc and his friends at Merlefest in North Wilkesboro.
At memorial services for Doc and Earl, their influence on others was acknowledged, but there was actually very little emphasis on their musical virtuosity. In part, of course, this was because anyone present would have known about that already. But of course everyone present would have known something about the men behind the music too. Nevertheless, it became clear in these services that it was the character of the men, not just their musical talents that caused our heart-strings to resonate so readily in response to those on their banjo and guitar.
It is fitting that this celebration of Doc Watson occur in the capital city where he attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind years before becoming famous. And it is fitting to share his memory along with that of Earl Scruggs who drove his young family in a mobile home to Raleigh when he had the WPTF gig for eight months in 1952. For both men represent in their music and their character the very best of our state, and, in this, both men were perfect embodiments of our fine state motto.
In 1893, the General Assembly gathered in Raleigh and selected the phrase “Esse Quam Videri” to grace The Great Seal of North Carolina. They felt so strongly about the centrality of its message that they decreed by legal statute that “no other words or other embellishments shall appear on the seal.” These Latin words mean “to be, rather than to seem”, and I’ve always appreciated the degree to which they describe the sort of humble, genuine, unembellished quality of our finest citizens.
And so it was with Doc and Earl. For years, a standard introduction at the Grand Ole Opry was for “Earl and his fancy banjo”. But it was the wonderful contrast between the flash and fire coming out of their instruments and the reserved, soft-spoken, non-fancy men behind them that made Doc and Earl so compelling.
In the music business, there are a lot of big egos and many who feed and flatter them. But as great musicians and modest men, both Doc and Earl were the genuine article, the real thing, and neither cared about the trappings that go along with seeming to be so. Barry Poss of Durham-born Sugar Hill Records recalls that it was often difficult in the studio to capture Doc’s virtuosity since his lack of pretension made him reluctant to “show-off” a hot lead in the presence of other players. As North Carolinians, we were comfortable having these accomplished but humble men represent not only our music but also our better natures as they traveled the globe.
It is common in conversations about music to say something like, “I love The Rolling Stones” or “Man, I love John Coltrane”. Indeed, I think I’m quoting myself here. But generally what we really mean by such statements is that we love the music of The Rolling Stones and John Coltrane. But when I say “I love Earl Scruggs” or “I love Doc Watson”, I really mean I love Earl Scruggs and I love Doc Watson. And that’s why I’ll be at the Museum of Art next Saturday. See ya’ there.
by David Tate
Doc Watson Symposium
Saturday, June 30 | 10:30 am
Museum Auditorium, East Building
10:30 am–noon and 1–4 pm
Admission free; ticket from Box Office required