It was in Asheville, NC in the fall of 1963, I was eleven years old, and the events of it are shrouded in layers of retelling and remembering, so I don’t know what the real truth of it was. What I seem to recall is that, by the end of the performance, there were as many people on stage as in the audience. Scruggs and Lester Flatt kept recognizing people in the audience and inviting them up–and all of them seemed to have come prepared, having hauled guitar, banjo and fiddle cases with them. It’s likely they did ask a couple of people up, something they apparently once did quite regularly, but I doubt it was the way I remember it that night.
Anyway, Pandora “suggested” Scruggs before I was done typing, but also Scruggs, Doc Watson and Ricky Skaggs. As I’ve been a Watson fan almost as long as I’ve been listening to Scruggs (Skaggs is a bit of a johnny-come-lately to this crowd), I clicked OK and got a set commencing with a collaboration amongst the three of them. “Good Deal!” thought I, remembering back to the title of my first Doc Watson album, bought in 1968 or 1969.
Though Watson grew up in the same area as my mother, I never had encountered his music before then. My mother, herself a classical musician, looked down her nose a bit at the mountain music. My grandfather, though, had probably heard Watson himself when, as a very young man, Watson played on the streets of Lenoir, my mother’s home town. After all, my grandfather was an insurance agent and he made it his business to be often out mingling, talking with people, learning who was who and who needed what.
My grandfather was from Wilkesboro, about the same distance from Watson’s home town of Deep Gap as Lenoir is, though in a slightly different direction. My uncle now lives in North Wilkesboro. When I was visiting him a few years ago, I was surprised to find that he was quite familiar with Watson’s music, having forgotten all about MerleFest, the bluegrass festival Watson started and named after his late son and performance partner. It takes place in Wilkesboro.
When I first listened to Good Deal!, I was struck by the clarity of Watson’s music. He was doing something a little different from Flatt & Scruggs or Bill Monroe or the Stanley Brothers. His wasn’t quite the bluegrass of the time but somehow reached back a little further while keeping the sound quite modern. Unlike Carter Family recordings or others of the old-timey tradition preceding bluegrass, there was nothing dated about Watson, though I felt a connection that was missing in a lot of other contemporary mountain music. It was as though Watson was able to unmuffle the sounds of the past, making them the sounds of ‘today.’
I never really thought of Watson as a guitar virtuoso (he was, of course, but that seemed a minor part of his art) but as that rare artist who really can, as Ezra Pound demanded, ‘make it new.’ Virtuosity itself pales against that sort of real creativity.
After listening to the Pandora “station” for a time while I read, I clicked over to The New York Times. I saw, of course, that Watson had died that day. He was 89.
He did the best with the hand he was dealt, and dealt the rest of us an even better one.
Rest in peace, Doc Watson. I hope you and Scruggs are off pickin’ together somewhere.