How A Great Artist Can Change A Life: Doc Watson, Rest In Peace
By Andy Falco
My parents are music lovers, and music was and still is a big part of our family. Growing up, there was always really great music playing somewhere in our home. Records or the radio were always playing somewhere in the house, seemingly at all times. Radio was permanently on in the car. Classical radio was always the soundtrack on our Sunday drives to my grandparent's in NYC.
My parents are what I would consider model record buyers. If they hear something they like on the radio or television, they buy the record the next day. And their taste is eclectic, ranging from The Beatles to Sonny Rollins to the Doors to Johnny Cash to Mozart to Brownie McGee and Sonny Terry to Broadway Show Soundtracks to Herb Albert to Judy Collins to The Band to Simon and Garfunkel to Modern Jazz Quartet to Willie Nelson and and so on.
As kids, my siblings and I were partial to the rock n roll records, especially the Beatles. Of course, my folks had all the original print Beatle records, complete with the Apple label, and all the additional souvenirs the albums came with like the cardboard cut outs inside Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, the individual photos that accompanied the White Album (and a stamped code that I believe was part of a contest they had when the album was released), etc. By the time we got through with them we literally wore those records out, scratched the hell out of them, ripped the covers up from all the use. I would occasionally flip through the collection to explore, and it was during one of these times that I remember my first glimpse of a record and artist that would turn out to have a profound effect on my life.
It was the first Doc Watson album (which was originally released by Vanguard in 1964, I believe). My father bought it when he first heard "Deep River Blues" on the radio, which is one of my dad's favorite songs to this day. The album had simple yet eloquent design, just a black and white photo of Doc playing an acoustic guitar with the name of the album on top, 'DOC WATSON'.
We were kids. We were used to the loud interactive artwork and big production sound of albums like Magical Mystery Tour and Sgt Peppers (not to say the music wasn't incredible, but it was also marketed really well!). Needless to say, I skipped past the Doc Watson record many times. Cassettes became the main medium, which took me away from flipping through those old records, and then the rise of the CD sent the vinyl collection into a storage room somewhere in the house, MIA and presumed dead.
I decided to pursue a career in music during my college years. I was an electric guitar player influenced by those Beatles records I grew up listening so closely to, as well music I was turned on to mostly by my older brother Tom, four years my senior. I was way into bands like the Grateful dead, the Allman Brothers Band, David Bromberg, and Jimi Hendrix. I dug deeper, and got in to the blues. I was digging artists like BB King, Freddie King, Clarence "Gatemouth" Brown, Buddy Guy and Robert Johnson. I was turned on to Mike Bloomfield, who became my #1 influence for many years. I had a really great band, and we were playing around the NY and Long Island scene, as well as regionally around the Northeast college circuit. I wanted to realize my dreams of making my living as a musician.
I had a show booked in New Paltz, NY on a Friday night. It happened to be the same weekend that my brother Tom was heading up to a Bluegrass festival in upstate New York, not too far from New Paltz. I didn't even know what a Bluegrass festival was, but he was going up with a few friends and he suggested that I come up early to hang out for a night or two. He said they were camping, and it might be fun to check out some music, drink some beers, and sleep in tents in the Berkshire Mountains. I thought it sounded kinda fun, so I went.
I arrived at Winterhawk Bluegrass Festival (now called Grey Fox) in my car early on Thursday Morning. The campers, including my brother and company, were already let in the day before, and I arrived at around 8am so there was no line to get in. I didn't have a camping pass, but when I explained to the gatekeeper that I was just trying to hook up with my brother and stay overnight, they let me buy a day pass and go up the hill, but I had to leave my car at the bottom. The other catch was that the shuttle buses were not running yet at that hour, and anyone who has been to the old Winterhawk/Grey Fox site remembers that it was a very large, steep hill to get up to the festival. So, I grabbed a gallon jug of water, a tent I bought at a garage sale, and a cheap acoustic guitar and walked all the way up the mountain in black jeans and a black tshirt. I miraculously found my brother (this is pre cell phone, so I stress “miraculously”!) set up my tent, and cracked my first beer at a bluegrass festival.
We hung out, watched a few shows and I was amazed at the musicianship of these bluegrass musicians. We raged all day, and well into the late night hours jamming and having a blast. The next morning, I checked out the schedule to see if there were any acts I could see before I had to leave the festival for my gig later that night. I noticed that there was a guitar workshop by Jack Lawrence. At the time, I didn't know who Jack was, but I knew that if he was doing a workshop there, he was going to be great. I didn't even really know what a guitar workshop was, or how it would work but I wanted to check it out. I Thought I might learn something about this music, so I went. We were there early so I sat right in front of the small stage, actually more like a little platform a few inches off the ground under a tent with a small PA system, a few folding chairs on stage with a vocal and instrument mic in front of each. A sizable audience gathered in the tent, and I could see a few folks in the back of the stage getting some guitars out. My brother pointed to an older man with a guitar, and he said "that's Doc Watson". "Oh yeah, Dad had that old record", I said not realizing that my life was about to change. Jack helped Doc to his chair, which happened to be 3 feet directly in front of me. Remembering that old album cover which was burned in my memory from my parent's collection, I couldn't wait to hear what Mr. Watson sounded like.
Doc Watson and Jack Lawrence did an amazing workshop, and as anyone who has attended a workshop like this knows, it turns more into a performance than a workshop. I watched Doc pick precise, creative, and simply breathtaking acoustic guitar effortlessly in a way I had never seen before. From super fast and clean flatpicking to beautiful lyrical phrases and fingerstyle guitar as good as anyone I had heard, not to mention great singing that just brought you in the way an old story from a grandparent will - I was mesmerized (and I should also mention, Jack Lawrence is no slouch either!!). The workshop ended, and I walked back towards the campsite stunned. I decided on that walk that I had to learn how to play like Doc. We returned to the camp, where I saw Buddy Merriam (who's bluegrass band I would later join), and I remember telling him that I had to get a real acoustic guitar immediately, and that Doc Watson had inspired me to learn flatpicking guitar. I bought a brand new Martin HD-28 shortly after, and began my journey as an acoustic guitarist.
I am so proud to say that today I am a professional guitar player as a member of The Infamous Stringdusters. I get to call my passion my job, and I would not be here if not for Doc Watson, period. Thank you Doc, for pointing me the way to my dreams.
May 29, 2012