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Idol Conversation

Doc Watson brings his friends to celebrate at Spirit Square

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"Hi. Is Doc there?"

"Just a minute. Are you an interviewer?" It's Rosa Lee Watson, Doc's wife.

"Yes, I am," I say.

"Just a minute. You're an interview? Now you hold on, hear?"

"It's an interview, honey..." Rosa Lee calls out to her husband of many years. She's probably done this a thousand times over the years, but there's no trace of artifice or routine in her voice. "Here's the phone," she says, guiding her husband to the receiver. Her husband, of course, is one of the most revered folk and roots musicians to ever set foot in the United States, much less Deep Gap, NC, where I'm calling him at his home. Blind since infancy, Doc is lucky to have a woman like Rosa Lee around. Not that he needs to be babysat, mind you. I recall a story Watson's sometimes-sideman Jack Lawrence once told me about Doc building a 16' by 20' utility building behind his house, and try to picture it in my mind. A second later, I'm shaken back to the present.

"Hello?"

"Mr. Watson?"

"Who's this?" Fair enough. He's Doc Watson, and it's morning, the same week MerleFest is beginning, and I'm bothering him.

"It's Tim Davis," I say. "Sorry I'm a bit late. Still a little early for me..."

"Man, this ain't early. I've been up for hours!" My heart stops. The Doc begins to laugh. Air once again courses through my respiratory system. I check my notes, search for questions. The few seconds of silence pound my head like a drum.

"So, this concert in Charlotte is a celebration of your 80th birthday, right?"

Doc laughs. "Well, that's what they say! I don't know. My 80th birthday was the third of March, and they're trying to tack on birthday celebrations all the way down the line! I don't even know what 80 years old signifies. I'm just thankful for my health."

"I guess it's a big round number for people to latch on to," I say.

"I guess that's it. But if a man is 80 and still able to pick and sing a little bit, I think it is a blessing, don't you?"

"Did you think back years ago that you'd still be touring at 80?"

"I never thought about it one way or another," Doc says. I begin to feel like that character Chris Farley used to play on Saturday Night Live, where he says all the wrong things to his idols. Switch gears, Davis!

"With MerleFest growing every year, did you imagine in the beginning that it would turn into such a big event?

"I don't think anyone that had anything to do with MerleFest ever dreamed it would happen the way it did," says Watson. "Originally some friends -- "B" Townes, Bill Young, Ralph Williams -- wanted me to do a concert to put a little memorial garden there at Wilkes Community College in memory of Merle [Doc's son and playing partner who died in a tragic farming accident in 1985]. I told them sure, I'd do that, and we talked about it for a while. My wife and daughter, Rosa Lee and Nancy, said why don't you hold it over till spring, and do a little one or two day festival so Merle's friends can come? About 5,000 people showed up for it -- they did some good promotion on it. It did so well we decided to do it one more year, and then it just mushroomed and took off like a big storm cloud or somethin' a buildin' right fast. Only it wasn't a storm. It's been a wonderful thing -- been well handled, the people, the volunteers, everybody. It's safe for children to come to -- they have a petting farm and all that stuff, good little things for youngsters to do, and people aren't afraid to bring their children. To me, it's a real festival -- a fellowship and a get-together as much as a festival."

"A lot of the festivals nowadays, the big bluegrass festivals, you can't necessarily bring children to," I say. "They're big drinking festivals, sometimes."

"You don't have to drink and carouse, as Dad used to put it, to have a good festival. You need fellowship, which is much more important than the music. You need a good variety of music, and not something wild to drive people into some kind of orgies, ya know? That's what a good kind of festival is about, and it has proven itself in MerleFest."

Doc's really rolling now, and I'm staying quiet as possible. Did Doc just say "orgies?" Focus.

"Since Ralph Stanley is opening the show here in Charlotte, how long ago did you first meet him?"

"I've listened to Ralph on the radio, you know. I listened to him and Carter, the Stanley Brothers, before I ever got into music as a profession. My wife and I, shortly after we were married and moved out on our own, we listened to Farm and Fun Time on WCYB Bristol. It was a regular station, and the Stanley Brothers were favorites. I met Ralph a time or two as they would come to Boone and do shows. I got to know Ralph personally and worked with him to get him to come to MerleFest. Ralph, he holds a pretty big spot in bluegrass and old time music, you know, and that's why he is there. And that Jim Lauderdale, he's a character, man, that guy is something else." Doc begins laughing hard. I do as they do in Deep Gap, and laugh too.

"I had the occasion of meeting him once," I say.

"I like the man. You know, I haven't met him, but I have through his music," Doc says.

I feel like a name-dropper.

Doc continues. "You get an idea of a fellow's personality if you listen to him a little bit in song, especially songs the person has written themselves. I intent to shake a howdy with old Jim, this time, though. I won't let him get away."

He seems happy to talk about others. I ask him about touring with Richard Watson, Merle's son. His voice lowers a half-step, it seems.

"I believe Richard began touring solid with me nearly two years ago," Doc says. "He did some shows with me before that, and we did a CD Third Generation Blues together. It sure has been a pleasure having Richard out there. It's an extension of his dad in a way. He hasn't developed his music as far as Merle has, because Merle was with me for years on the road. (Merle) never got half the credit. He kind of stayed out of the limelight. Somebody once asked why he didn't speak on stage, and he said Dad talks enough for both of us! He tried introducing the boys one time and did a good job, but he didn't care to do that. He wanted to let his guitars talk, and his slide, and his flat pickin', and his fingerstyle. Richard is a good blues man, and other things. If you heard the album, you'd have a real good idea what Richard could really do."

Doc can talk real easy about Merle and Richard, so we chatted a few more minutes about that, and about subjects that probably don't concern anyone reading. Truth be told, they probably didn't concern Doc all that much, either. I think he could sense my genuine interest, though, and gave genuine answers to everything I asked. I thanked him for his time, and wished him luck.

In the beginning, I felt bad about bothering Doc. By the end, the hard part was just hanging up.

Doc Watson will perform two shows at Spirit Square's McGlohon Theatre, at 7 and 9:30pm on Friday, May 9. Tickets cost $30-$45 and are available by calling 704-372-1000.

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