Published: Jul 03, 2012 07:00 PM
Modified: Jun 30, 2012 05:23 PM
Bluegrass flatpicking guitarist Doc Watsons recent death in May marks the end of an era. One of the greatest bluegrass performers of all time, he inspired generations of guitarists to explore and marvel at his legendary musical talent. Blinded in infancy, he nonetheless mastered guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica.
He has also been a part of my life since the time I was born. My mom would play his music to get me to be quiet when I was a baby.
The first concert I ever went to was when I was 3 and he performed in Roxboro. About three years later, I saw him perform at the N.C. Museum of Art in Raleigh, where I got to meet him afterward and tell him goodnight.
Doc was singing the song about Tom Dooley (whose real name was Tom Dula) long before the Kingston Trio made it a big hit 50 years ago. In the song, Tom Dula is hanged by Sheriff Grayson for the murder of Laurie Foster. When we were at the Raleigh performance, his friend and fellow performer David Holt got him to tell the story of how his great-grandmother witnessed Sheriff Graysons wife, Annie, on her death bed confess that Tom Dooley was innocent, as she had killed Laurie Foster in a jealous rage.
For years weve heard the recording of him and his son Merle during the seventh inning stretch at Bulls games in Durham when their version of Take Me Out to the Ballgame gets played. When we were at a game back in April we were disappointed that somebody elses recording was on the loudspeaker. But at a recent game, they had Doc and Merle back in the seventh inning where they belong.
Every year, during the last weekend of April (Thursday through Sunday), the bluegrass festival called Merlefest is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. It began in 1988 after the tragic death of Merle, who was killed in a tractor accident several years before. The festival raises money for the college.
We have been going to Merlefest each spring since 2000. Its a place where you have the opportunity to talk with a lot of the performers. Weve been able to visit with well-known performers such as Bela Fleck, Pete Seeger and his brother Mike, and Woody Guthries daughter Nora as well as groups that were on the way to becoming famous like The Duhks and The Carolina Chocolate Drops.
One of my younger brother Shafes favorite memories was when he got a personal performance from the Duhks. We were in line to get their autographs. Our friend Vic was in line with us and Shafe mentioned that he wished that they had sung their arrangement of Camptown Races at their set earlier that day. Vic mentioned Shafes disappointment to them and right away, they sang it to him a cappella while the drummer drummed his part on the autograph table.
Doc made sure that the whole community was involved in Merlefest. Local groups such as churches and schools sell the food, giving them an opportunity to make money for their organization. Boy Scouts help with transportation and distribution of programs. There are several contests each year that include guitar, banjo and mandolin players, and various tents are set up where anybody can pick and sing.
But the highlight each year for our family has always been seeing Doc Watson perform. Every year weve looked forward to hearing him sing traditional mountain music with old friends, Docabilly, blues, and gospel music by the creek on Sunday morning.
This past Merlefest, we saw him in what turned out to be his last public performance, when he played his usual gospel music set with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Near the end, as the Nashville Band was about to start another song, Doc stopped them and said he had a song he really wanted to sing. He said it was from his boyhood. Without accompaniment, he sang Beautiful Golden Somewhere, a song about going to heaven. I hope hes reached his beautiful golden somewhere.