Some folk and country music performers will tell you that singer-guitarist Doc Watson is American music’s finest proponent. Others simply maintain that he is American music. Watson carries a repertoire in his head of more than 800 songs, many older than the nation, and his staggering flatpicking abilities have influenced practically everybody in folk or country who ever picked up an acoustic guitar.
But, more than being a repository of lore or an influential stylist, perhaps the most American of the musician’s traits is the enlivening way he makes everything he touches his own, leaving both tradition and his legendary six-string techniques open to nightly reinterpretation. One of those nights is tonight, when Watson, accompanied by guitarist Jack Lawrence, shares the bill with blues performer John Hammond at the Coach House in San Juan Capistrano.
Although he’s one of a dwindling number of musicians with a deep grounding in American traditional music, Watson says he doesn’t believe it’s his role to be guardian to a static museum. Speaking from his home in Deep Gap, N.C., the town where he was born 66 years ago, he explained:
“What I’ve done, I’ve done because I wanted to. It wasn’t to try to keep anything alive or to change anything. I just did it. The feeling brings out whatever comes out of each tune. I think every man (who) feels his music--especially if you play by ear--you learn and change little things all along as you go on.”
Often wrongly classified as a bluegrass performer, Watson instead defines his music as “traditional plus whatever I might want to pick.” Although that includes bluegrass, there are also blues, hobo songs, ancient banjo and fiddle tunes, mountain music, gospel numbers, Western swing and every stripe of country music, except possibly the modern Nashville variety.
“To me, most of the Nashville music now is countrified pop, not true country music,” Watson said. He says he does listen keenly to such younger players as Mark O’Connor and the members of New Grass Revival.
Born Arthel Watson, and blind since suffering an eye disease before he was 2, Watson grew up hearing hymns and Blue Ridge Mountain music sung by his family, with outside influences such as Jimmie Rodgers and Mississippi John Hurt sneaking in on the Victrola. When Watson was 10, his father handmade his first stringed instrument: a banjo with a groundhog hide for its resonating head.
A store-bought guitar followed when he was 12, beginning a love affair that by the ‘50s found him playing guitar in a regional country dance band. Although many consider Watson the standard-bearer of acoustic purism, during this period he traded his flattop for a Gibson Les Paul, playing rockabilly numbers that still surface in his shows.
Watson remained largely unknown until the folk boom of the early ‘60s, when his dizzying picking technique--developed in part from his dance-band experience mimicking fiddle solos--and his unaffected baritone voice quickly elevated him to the status of national treasure.
So he has remained for the ensuing decades, although no one ever said being a national treasure is easy work. He has recorded nearly 40 albums, earning four Grammys and participating in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legendary “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” set in 1972. Some years he has spent as many as 300 days on the road.
To him, the essence of performing is “the whole bit.”
“There’s three things involved,” Watson said, “and one doesn’t take priority over the other: There’s the love of the music, a good audience and the fact a man has to make a living. I appreciate the fact I can do that. I love the music and the audience. I would have quit a long time ago if it hadn’t have been for that, and the fact that I needed to supply my family’s needs. If a man’s a man, he’ll do that.”
Many of Watson’s songs deal with hard times, and he sings them with an informed voice. It has often seemed that what the music world has gained in Watson’s talents, he has arrived at by way of hardship.
Although he discounts the notion that sightless people are apt to be more sensitive musicians--he believes one is born with that talent--he declared: “If I could see, I’d never have played except as a hobby. I’d have had me a job where I could go home every night. I hate the road, man, with a passion. That’s the hard part of this job, being away from home and the travel.
“I think it robbed me of some things that otherwise I could have had if I could see, because I’ve been deprived of just being at home with my family, the way a man’s supposed to be. And fishing trips with my son, which we didn’t get to do, because he was tied up in the mess too, the travel and the deprivation of being at home.
(Watson’s son Merle was also a remarkable guitarist and banjo player, and toured with Watson for years. He was killed in a tractor accident in 1985).
“There’s lots of family things I’ve missed, because the very time you need to do something, you’re stuck with a signed contract and you have to be somewhere.”
Now is one such time, because Watson’s wife is in the hospital with complications from heart surgery. “But I’ve often said a man does what he has to. And the love of the music really helped make that possible.”
Although he rues the road, Watson said quite a different feeling comes over him when he is on stage.
“Did you ever get into a good-fellowship thing, where there’s a whole bunch of people striking hands, and you had some super-good friends there or somebody you hadn’t seen in a long time that you cared about, and the warmth that went along with that? It’s that for me, but sort of amplified.”
Doc Watson and John Hammond play at 8 tonight at the Coach House, 33157 Camino Capistrano, San Juan Capistrano. Tickets: $16.50. Information: (714) 496-8930.