This has been a rough year for anyone who shares my musical tastes. In March, we lost Earle Scruggs. Levon Helm left us in April. And then in May, Doc Watson. We lost others, too (Doug Dillard among them), but it would be pretty hard to think of three musicians who’ve had more of an impact on me than Earl, Levon, and Doc, and suddenly, within a three-month span, they were all gone. I didn’t know any of them personally, and I know that many tributes have been made to each of them by people who did. Still, in a musical sense I’ve spent my life with all of them, and in that way they seem like friends. Family, even. And so it is that I feel the need to mark their passing with a few words of remembrance.
There are a lot of singers that I love — Ray Charles, Emmylou Harris, Merle Haggard, Ella Fitzgerald, Neko Case, the list goes on — but I don’t think anyone’s voice has ever resonated into my bones in quite the same way that Levon Helm’s does. Just the right blend of sadness, sweat, and gravel, perfect and imperfect in every aspect. I’ve never heard anyone like him before, and I don’t expect to again. Unfortunately, the only time I ever saw him live was at the Newport Folk Festival in 2010, when his voice had already left him. Even so, his musicianship, stage presence, and warmth was still abundantly evident, and he was still able to raise the hair on the back of my neck. Levon Helm clearly loved his work, and so did we.
It would be hard to think of a musical genre that I don’t enjoy on some level, but it probably comes as no surprise for me to say that bluegrass is at the very top of my list. All my life, as my musical interests developed, changed, expanded and refined, bluegrass was the one constant sound that threaded its way throughout. And for me, the man who defined that sound was Earle Scruggs. I’m not a purist — I don’t think there’s any one set of rules that determines what is and isn’t bluegrass music; what is or isn’t a bluegrass band. To be sure, one of my three favorite bluegrass albums of all time doesn’t have a banjo on a single cut. Still, the hard-driving roll of a 5-string banjo is my immediate association with the word bluegrass, and Earle was the architect for it. It’s unlikely that you could name any artist who did more to shape the sound of his musical genre than Earle Scruggs did for bluegrass. As Steve Martin wrote in his March 28, 2012 tribute to Earle in The New Yorker magazine, “Before him, no one had ever played the banjo like he did. After him, everyone played the banjo like he did, or at least tried.”
If Earle Scruggs was responsible for defining the sound of my favorite music, it was Doc Watson who actually brought me to it in the first place. There was always music playing in our house when I was growing up, and most often we were listening to my father’s country and bluegrass records, so there was never a time when I didn’t know what bluegrass was. But like most of my friends, I was more interested in the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, and other pop and rock music.
But one Saturday morning, I would guess this was in 1973 or ’74, my cousin Lee came by our house and brought a record for Dad to hear. They were sitting in the basement in front of our old console stereo. I went downstairs for some reason, probably to fetch something from the freezer for my mother, and the music struck me in a way that it never had before. The album was Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the landmark 1972 recording by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band featuring a host of legendary bluegrass and country artists, and the song was Doc Watson’s version of “Way Downtown.” I’m quite sure this was not the first time I had ever heard Doc’s music, and as I say, it was most certainly not the first time I had ever heard bluegrass. But it is the first time that I realized what the music had to offer; what it really meant. Four or five years later I was playing bluegrass myself, and I’ve never stopped.
Lot’s of fans have a “Doc story,” and I’m one of them. I’ve told it often, and wrote about it briefly on Facebook when we learned of Doc’s passing, but it seems only appropriate to remember it here:
Sometime around 1980, Doc came to play at a bar in my hometown of Statesville, NC. At that time he was still playing with his son Merle, and their bassist, T. Michael Coleman. My bandmates and I were not yet old enough to drink, but we were able to go to the show with our parents. You can’t imagine how excited we were.
I had a new Alvarez guitar that I paid $350 for, including a hardshell case. Just a few months before Doc’s show, I had taken the guitar with me to a Willie Nelson concert in Charlotte, where I had gotten Willie to autograph the top. I started thinking that I should try to get Doc to sign it, too, so I took it with me to the show.
We arrived early and took a table, and my father went up and spoke to one of the bartenders for a couple minutes. The bartender stepped into the back for a few seconds and then came back and motioned for my dad and I to follow him. He led us to a doorway in a narrow hall behind the bar, pecked on the door, and Merle opened it. He invited us in, shook our hands, and then he and the bartender left
Doc was seated in a wooden chair by a small table, and greeted us as if we were long lost friends or family. We introduced ourselves and exchanged a few pleasantries. He asked about Statesville, our family, asked me about school, and showed genuine interest in hearing about our band. At some point Merle came back in and joined the conversation as well. I’m sure we weren’t in there long, but it seemed like we had quite a visit. Finally I told them that I had brought my guitar for Doc to autograph.
Doc explained that “Merle does all our signin’. He signs all our contracts and autographs and everything.” So I took out the guitar and handed it over to Merle, along with a 16-penny nail I had wrapped with masking tape to about the size of a pencil, and he scratched in their names.
As Merle finished, Doc asked me if he could try the guitar out for a minute, and of course I handed it over. He ran his hands all around it, asked me a little about it, and then picked out a few bars of Windy and Warm, one of my favorites — although of course he had no way to know that. Then he played through a bit of Doc’s Guitar. Handing it back to me, he said, “That there is a fine fingerpickin’ guitar!”
I thanked them both and we all said our goodbyes, and of course in my memory the show that followed is one of the best concerts I’ve ever seen. In hindsight, obviously, I know that old Alvarez is not much of an instrument, but for a good long while I felt like it was about the greatest guitar on earth.
Doc’s music and career speaks for itself. Far better writers than me have far more incisive things to say about it than anything I might come up with. But I think this story –and hundreds more from other fans like myself– tells all there is to say about the man himself. He was a treasure, and made us all richer.