So Doc Watson passed the other day. I don’t recall ever seeing him on television (and I used to watch Studio 330 Sessions fairly regularly when we first got cable), or hearing him all that much on the radio (and I lived through the “Progressive Country Era,” which ended at the arrival of the “Urban Cowboy Era”); nevertheless, somehow I heard his music and really enjoyed it. This post is about how that happened.
In 1988, after watching Jim Stafford on the Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour, I decided I wanted to play the guitar.* I didn’t wanna ask for lessons, ’cause I’d taken lessons when I was in second grade, and that was a total disaster. Luckily, I found my dad’s stack of songbooks, ‘How-To’ and instructional books. Wanna see my favorite?
Of course you do!
No, your eyes do not deceive you, amigo. The authors of this tome are ‘Happy’ and ‘Artie.’ Wanna see ’em?
What am I, crazy? You’re here, aren’t you?
Why yes, this book was published in 1969! ‘Children of Paradise,’ indeed.
Anyhoo, before Rock Guitar builds up a head of steam and shows you how to play like Danny Kalb of ‘Eric Burdon and the New Animals’ or Sam Andrew of ‘Big Brother and the Holding Company’ — waitaminnit, Rock Guitar never does that, it just shows you how to play chords** and has a few transcriptions of B.B. King solos. As I was saying, Rock Guitar somehow postulates that the exciting sounds of 1969 Rawk! music comes from folk music. That is played in the country. Sometimes by country white people, sometimes other types of country people. A picture of just such a person is included in Rock Guitar, perhaps so that I could identify one if ever I stalked across one in the wild, perhaps so that I could notify the nearest game warden.
And this was all I knew of Doc Watson, until 1991when I went to I-Can’t-Believe-It’s-A-College and met a guy who had some Doc Watson in his box of tapes which he’d brought from home. He didn’t have much of a collection; aside from Doc Watson, he had Charlie Daniels’ Million Mile Reflections, and maaaaaybe a budget Elvis compilation. In 1991, these were the musical tastes of a serial killer. I put off further exposure to Doc Watson until 1997 or 1998, when I was either such a poor-ass or such a dork — take your pick — that I looked forward to Sundays and spending the afternoon listening to Prairie Home Companion on the radio, and that’s how I finally heard Doc Watson.
Well, what could I say? I could have kicked myself for missing out on years — ten years, at that counting — of Doc Watson. What a player!
’98 was the year I made my first trip to Nashville, and pretty much everybody you see there rolled into town with dreams of being like someone else. (I’m not knocking this.) Some guys — ESPECIALLY THE GUITAR PLAYERS — go waaay to far with it and become super nerds. The super guitar nerds in Nashville either want to geek out over Chet Atkins — the fingerstyle guys — or Doc Watson — the speed-freak ultra clean flattop acoustic flatpickers.
I don’t think I bought any Doc Watson albums until I saw the Doc Watson/Del McCoury/Mac Wiseman album in 2001. Little did I know that I’d be returning back to Maryland within a month or two of getting that album, and that those three guys were the ‘backbone’ of the Eddie Stubbs Show on WAMU. The Eddie Stubbs Show — with its constant notice of ‘…mighty fine dobro playing from Shot Jackson’ — and the Doc/Del/Mac super session album kept my head in the mythic South for a while longer. Having my head in the mythic South was a million times better than having any part in the ‘real world’ in Maryland — the threshold for being a real fuckup in the South is a lot higher than it is in Maryland. Kripes, you move back to Maryland from Alabama, you find out everything you do for fun is against the law.
Back then, I finally got smart, got a $99 acoustic guitar and a $175 Fischmann transducer, and got 3-4 gigs a week playing ‘acoustic’ music. What the hell, people were in a bit of a fervor for that thanks to the movie O Brother, Where Art Thou? ‘Little Green Valley’ was a regular part of my set in those days; for all Doc Watson’s super flatpicking, it’s his vocals that won me over. They’re an acquired taste, I guess. Judge for yourself.
I even taught my old man to play ‘Little Green Valley.’ He thought it was corny. He still loved my Doc/Del/Mac super jam album, though. Ironically, my old man the staunch atheist loved Del McCoury’s squealing through the camp meeting song ‘The Old Account.’ I don’t think he was laughing at it, so much as just enjoying it, never mind how ridiculous he may have found such evangelical flum-a-diddle. The way Baptists enjoy the Macarena.
When I came home in ’01, I was a fuckup and a failure, and my sick, dying old man had to watch me be that way.*** So I owe a debt to Doc Watson’s music for giving me and the old man a bit of fuckup-free common ground, for putting a bit of grease into the grinding gears of family life.
But Doc Watson’s recorded legacy wasn’t through helping me out. Back in ’07, ’08 when the Golden Boy was small, he was into trains. I’d heard a train song I’d liked — ‘Streamline Cannonball’ — on Prairie Home Companion, liked it so much I had to get it for myself. Downloaded Doc Watson’s version of it from iTunes. For a little while, the Boy and I listened to it.
Now, of course, the Golden Boy doesn’t remember how much he loved trains and trips to the B&O Railroad Museum, or listening to ‘Streamline Cannonball’, or Johnny Cash’s live ‘Orange Blossom Special,’ or (in a somewhat similar freight-hauling vein) Red Simpson’s ‘(You Got) A Lot To Learn About Truck Driving.’ And he hates music, except for John Williams’ music cues. (Aaand maybe a little Ennio Morricone. It’s only natural.) But I remember all the bedtime stories about trains, and how ‘Streamline Cannonball’s image of a firebox visible from a distance at night was much like some pictures from a story — the name now lost to me — of a kid and her stuffed bunny making an unaccompanied train trip from Chicago to Florida. Here it is:
My copy of the song had a thumbnail of the 1960 album art, of Doc Watson in a shiny vest and shoulder garters. Must have been trying to horn in on Big ‘Tiny’ Little and His Honky-Tonk Piano’s demographic.
*There’s a cry for help if ever there was one.
**Including barre chords. This is the Executive Edition.
***To be fair, as well as everyone else. Except the old man didn’t get to see me get it together.