Doc Watson is one of the last remaining icons of the original generation of tradi-tional folk and blue-grass. Coming from humble beginnings in the rural mountain country of Deep Gap, N.C., Watson lost his sight at an early age. But he did not let it deter him from setting the standard for flat-picking guitar. At 86 years old, Watson still brings to the stage a keen wis-dom and gracious humility that matches his legendary guitar wiz-ardry, and his weathered, soulful vocals have influenced some of the world’s best musicians of the last half-century.
From April 23 to 26 an estimated 80,000 people will flock to the foothills town of North Wilkesboro for MerleFest. Hosted by Watson, the annual festival commemorates the life of Doc’s son, guitarist Merle Watson, who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985. Now one of the most popular music festivals in the world, the event has grown to four full days, 14 stages, and over 100 artists, from blue-grass stalwarts to the most promising Americana upstarts. Ahead of this year’s festival, BRO talked with Watson at his home in Deep Gap.
Bro: What was your intention when you started merlefest?
DW: We wanted to do a concert as a memorial for our boy, whom we lost in an accident. My wife Rosalee said, “Why don’t you hold it over until spring and do a festival so all of Merle’s friends can come?” We had 5,000 people show up to the first one, and people from as far away as Japan attended. People still come from all over the world, because it’s a tribute to someone special. We actually thought it would be a one-time thing, but it did so well the first year we decided to try it again. The next year attendance doubled. I wonder how it got this big sometimes, but then I remember Merle had thousands of friends. He was a fine young man.
What do you look forward to most about merlefest?
The “My Friend Merle” set that we do every year is really special. I also dearly love the gospel set that I do on Sunday morning. The early risers show up and really enjoy it.
You’ve played all around the world, but you still live in Deep Gap where you were born. What has kept you in the high country? I like the quietness of being out in the country. It’s peaceful and the air is cleaner. The only shame is the spray they use at the Christmas tree farms. It seeps down into the earth and gets in the water table. You need to have a well that goes below the water table.
What are some of your favorite younger bands that are carry-ing the torch of acoustic music?
The festival gives newcomers a chance to be heard by a lot of people. I like the Duhks a lot. They are coming back this year, and if I’m not busy on another stage, I want to check them out. I am also a big fan of Blue Highway. Those boys have a fine gospel album that will tug at your heart strings.
You still have a busy touring schedule planned with dates booked through 2010. how long do you plan to keep picking?
I don’t have any definite plans on that. When my hands won’t play the way I want them to, I will retire. I think I’m still playing pretty good. I don’t enjoy traveling. I never have. But I do like the stage and people who appreciate what I do. When I’m up there, I am myself. I don’t plan my sets or put on an act. I just get up there and roll along.