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Legendary guitarist and folk singer Doc Watson died Tuesday at age 89. Drawing on the musical traditions of his native northwestern North Carolina, his virtuoso flatpicking guitar style influenced musicians across American music genres from folk and bluegrass to rock and roll. We explore Watson’s musical legacy.
- Chris Teskey Senior Music Producer and Host of the Chris Teskey Show, WAMU's Bluegrass Country
MR. KOJO NNAMDIIt's hard to overstate Doc Watson's influence on American music. Across seven decades, his unique flatpicking guitar and baritone voice influenced musicians across -- American music from folk to bluegrass to blues to rock and roll. Doc Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. Blind from early childhood, Doc Watson drew on the musical traditions that surrounded him in his native Northwestern North Carolina, bringing old standards to a national and international audience and changing the way we think about the guitar.
MR. KOJO NNAMDIJoining us in our studio to talk about the legendary Doc Watson is Chris Teskey, senior music producer and host of "The Chris Teskey Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country. You can hear "The Chris Teskey Show" on Thursdays at noon on Bluegrass Country at 105.5 FM and WAMU HD 88.5 channel two in D.C. You can also hear it at 93.5 FM in Hagerstown and Frederick, Md., and streaming at bluegrasscountry.org. Out with the commercial. Now, Chris Teskey, good to see you. Glad you could join us.
MR. CHRIS TESKEYThank you, Kojo. Yeah, great to be there again.
NNAMDIOf course, I do see Chris every day. What better way to commemorate a person who changed the way we think about the guitar than to listen to his music. Here's "Deep River Blues."
NNAMDIChris, you're a music journalist, but you're also a guitar player. As a musician, what do you hear when you're listening to this track? What was unique about Doc Watson's playing style?
TESKEYWell, first of all, nobody had really done it quite like that before. Now, that's an example of Doc's fingerpicking, and he was a big fan of Merle Travis. In fact, he named his son Merle Watson after Merle Travis. And he's doing that mostly -- Kojo, he's doing that with two fingers, if you can believe it, with his thumb and his index finger. And he'd have to sneak his second finger in a little bit, but that's the amazing thing, is he's doing all that with two fingers.
TESKEYAnd all that music from one guy, and the singing, Doc was -- I was talking to Katy Daley this morning, and she described the Doc as the big tent. And he really was the big musical tent. Everybody loved this guy. And it's a real milestone now. But as guitar -- well, if there was a -- if you told a guitar player that there was drug he could take or she could take that would take five years off his life but would make them play like Doc Watson, everybody will...
NNAMDIThey'd probably take it.
TESKEYOh, everybody would. Oh, yeah.
NNAMDIKaty Daley, of course, also a host on Bluegrass Country. In many ways, Doc Watson was an unlikely musical icon. He was blind due to an untreated eye infection when he was a small child. And he was making music in a corner of the country that was really off the radar of most Americans in the 1950s. How did he come onto the national radar and onto the radar of a young Chris Teskey?
TESKEYWell, he came onto the radar of folk musicians in the early -- in about 1960. Ralph Rinzler was at Yale, and he had gone to -- in North Carolina to record Clarence Ashley. And Clarence Ashley's guitar player was a very young Doc Watson -- well, not as young as all that, but young in any case certainly career wise. And to Clarence's chagrin, Ralph Rinzler was more interested in Doc Watson than he was in Clarence Ashley.
NNAMDIWell, Ralph Rinzler apparently surprised Doc Watson 'cause Doc didn't think that people up north in New York City and other corners were interested in what he was doing. What was happening in music at that time?
TESKEYWell, in -- there was a folk revival, typically known as the folk scare of the 1960s. And groups like the Kingston Trio were around, and Bob Dylan was just coming up, Joan Baez. And so it's really, you know, pre-Beatles, pre-British invasion. So to have somebody like Doc Watson come along who could play all those folks' tunes and -- plus he was the realist. Everybody was looking for the real thing. Doc Watson was the epitome of the real thing. He was a blind bard from North Carolina that Ralph Rinzler discovered on -- in his travels. And no one had heard of him. It was like finding gold.
NNAMDIIf you're interested in sharing memories or thoughts about Doc Watson with us, you can call 800-433-8850, or send your email to firstname.lastname@example.org. We're talking with Chris Teskey, senior music producer and host of "The Chris Teskey Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country. You can also send us a tweet, @kojoshow. You say, Chris, that Doc Watson brought together the rednecks and the longhairs. What do you mean by that?
TESKEYWell, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band made a record called "Will the Circle Be Unbroken." I guess it's 1971, maybe 1972 -- I'm not entirely sure of the year. But they invited Bill Monroe -- who declined to play with a bunch of hippies-- Jimmy Martin, Doc Watson, Vassar Clements and other country and bluegrass music stars to get together with them and make an album. And so it turned people like me onto this music we'd never heard before because I knew the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, of course.
TESKEYThey had hits like "Mr. Bojangles" and were already opening our ears to folk and traditional music. We just didn't know it. So when "Will the Circle Be Unbroken" came along -- in fact, I think the hit from that record would -- you'd have to say it was Doc Watson doing the "Tennessee Stud." That was really the song that no one could believe how great it was.
NNAMDII'm so glad you mentioned that. So let's just take a listen to the aforementioned "Tennessee Stud."
NNAMDI"Tennessee Stud," Doc Watson recorded live with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. A lot of musicians have covered the song, Chris, but everyone seems to agree that this song belongs to Doc Watson, even though he didn't write it.
TESKEYWell, it really does. Eddy Arnold had a hit on it -- a country hit on it in the '50s. But after Doc did it, it was kind of -- there was no...
NNAMDIIt was done.
TESKEYIt was done. There was no point in recording that again.
NNAMDI800-433-8850. Are you a fan of Doc Watson? Did you ever see Doc Watson perform? What influence can you hear from him in American music? 800-433-8850. You can send email to email@example.com. Chris, you worked with Doc Watson in a variety of capacities over the years: as a booking agent, as an emcee at concerts and as a music journalist. Tell us a little bit about the man himself.
TESKEYWell, you know, I'll just use "Tennessee Stud" as an example. I went to see Doc Watson in New Haven at the now long-gone New Haven Restaurant on the Green, and I bought a ticket to both shows because I just went as a fan. And one of my -- but I was able to get backstage because I, you know, knew the promoter. And one of my friends asked me if I would introduce him to Doc, and I said, please, just don't, you know, don't embarrass me here.
TESKEYRight, don't embarrass me. So the first thing he did was he asked Doc to show him how to play the "Tennessee Stud." Well, I wanted to strangle him because I thought this was really stepping over a line, you know? And Doc said, sure, son. And he sat down, got his guitar and showed my friend how to play the "Tennessee Stud." I mean, he wasn't going to ever play it like that, but he was the most gracious guy. He really was.
TESKEYAnd if you -- another quick story I'll tell you is, you know, I have some other blind friends, and they don't like to sign things because they don't know what they're signing...
TESKEY...you know? And so I asked Doc for his autograph one time on the premiere issue of Frets Magazine -- Doc was on the cover -- and he didn't want to sign it. And his bass player came along and told him it was OK. And then he grabbed the pen, and he said, I'm going to sign this because I don't want anyone to think that Doc Watson can't write. And that story told me a lot first about how gracious he was.
TESKEYBut also, there was a big gap between Deep Gap, N.C. and New York City. It never occurred to me that Doc Watson couldn't write. That wouldn't -- I wouldn't think about that. But to be illiterate, to be born in the 1920s in Western North Carolina and be blind, the chances of your being illiterate were pretty good, actually.
NNAMDIAnd so he thought about it.
TESKEYHe was very aware, and he was very aware of the cultural difference between where he came from and -- but just what a gentleman. You could not really meet a nicer guy. And he had all -- when you were with him, he had all the time in the world for you.
NNAMDIDoc Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. Chris Teskey, I got to go back to the story with your friend because the first thing he asked him when he met this man was...
NNAMDI...teach me how to play "Tennessee Stud."
TESKEYI couldn't believe it. I mean, I felt humiliated, but Doc just took it right in stride.
NNAMDIOh, well. You mentioned a little while ago what was unique about his guitar playing. Let's listen to another track. Then we can discuss it again. Here is "Black Mountain Rag."
NNAMDIYou know, when you have an engineer who's also a guitar player, these are going to be very, very long parts that we play. Tell us where this comes from. Where does this…
TESKEYWell, the "Black Mountain Rag" is actually a fiddle tune that was originally done by a guy named Keith -- Toby Keith I think his first name was. But he was a trick fiddler, and he would play that song standing on his head. He would actually stand on his head and play the "Black Mountain Rag" on the fiddle.
TESKEYAnd that was where -- this is where Doc Watson stands at a crossroads in American music because prior to Doc, bluegrass and country music guitar players didn't really play leads. They didn't play fiddle tunes. They were rhythm guitarists. They were accompanists, for the most part. There were some people who tried a little bit, but Doc...
NNAMDIChanged all that.
TESKEYHe changed all that. After Doc Watson, everything was different. He's a watershed in American guitar music.
NNAMDIHe was raised surrounded by the unique musical traditions of Western North Carolina, but he wasn't raised in a musical vacuum. Like a lot of people at the time, he was glued to his radio, and he had a musical collection as a kid that included jazz and other influences. You once actually heard him playing a Sam Cooke song to himself.
TESKEYI was emceeing a guitar concert of Doc Watson and Norman Blake, two great guitar players. And everybody was off at hospitality, eating, and Doc was alone in his dressing room. And I just went by and he was playing, so I eavesdropped on Doc. And he was playing "Only Sixteen" by Sam Cooke. Now, he...
NNAMDIAnd Sam Cooke was about 20 years younger than Doc.
TESKEYWell, sure, yeah. And Doc was only doing this for his own pleasure because he didn't -- it wasn't in the show. Nobody was listening, that he knew about, although I did notice that he kind of twigged that I was there 'cause he was extremely...
NNAMDILet me see if this youngin likes this.
TESKEYOh, he was extremely sensitive to things around him as you would be, I suppose, if you're blind. But Doc really, you know, for him to play that or -- he would play Elvis Presley tunes. Doc Watson can play just about anything.
NNAMDIGlad you mentioned Elvis Presley tunes because we have a clip of him playing a variety of standards in a really unique way. Let's take a listen.
NNAMDIChris Teskey, clearly, he was hamming it up a little bit there.
TESKEYOh, sure. And the audience loves it because it's the last thing they expected from him.
TESKEYThat was actually an encore at a show that he did at Wesleyan in 1965.
NNAMDIWe got an email from Nick in Frederick, Md., who says, "A few years ago when Doc appeared here in Frederick, some of us were chatting with him afterwards, and he told us how he had just finished doing the electrical wiring for an addition to his house by himself. We were surprised, but he said his daddy had insisted from an early age that he be able to fend for himself. Pretty impressive, even though I remember reading about some musicians who went to his home for something or other, and he said, well, if you fix my bathroom then..." -- tell us about that story.
TESKEYWell, that's right. One of my friends in Connecticut went to college with Ralph Rinzler and, when Ralph was going down to see Doc, invited him along. So he brought his Wollensak open-reel machine, which every AV teacher in America had in their classroom at the time, and he recorded Doc in his living room and in his -- or in his parlor I think would be what they called it and on his front porch.
TESKEYAnd they went down four times and recorded Doc on four different weekends in 1963 and 1964 and just followed Doc around and made recordings of him with his brother, people coming through, neighbors playing because it was a big musical community. The guy next door played the banjo, and he played the guitar or whatever. And they recorded Doc a lot of times and...
NNAMDIAnd renovated his bathroom.
TESKEYAnd renovated his bathroom. And Doc did do the wiring. He did do the wiring.
NNAMDIHe did do the wiring himself.
TESKEYYeah, that's right.
NNAMDIWell, people will be able to hear what you're talking about in the new audio documentary you're working with Dick Spottswood to produce, celebrating Doc Watson's music. It's going to record -- it's going to include some very rare recordings of him playing on his porch. How did those recordings end up in your possession, because of that visit?
TESKEYWell, yeah. I was working at WPKN in Bridgeport at the time, and I got a phone call out of the blue from somebody who listened to my show, who I later became good friends with. He said, you know, I went to Doc Watson's house in the early '60s, and I had these recordings, which I actually found kind of hard to believe. So we made an appointment to get together, and when I listened to it, it was just incredible what he had.
NNAMDIYou'll be hearing it all in that documentary. Doc Watson's legend comes from his incredible guitar-playing style, but he was also very accomplished on the banjo, even though he was modest about those skills. Let's go out with an example of Doc Watson playing banjo. Here he is playing the jazz standard "Frankie and Johnny." Tell us about this track for a few minutes -- for a few seconds before we listen.
TESKEYSure. Well, this was recorded in Doc's living room. This is one of the recordings that we just referred to. And "Frankie and Johnny" is also known as "Frankie and Albert." This is a tune from the '20s, so the tune is probably older than Doc Watson, in fact. But Doc was very modest about his banjo playing and actually...
NNAMDI"Frankie and Johnny," Doc Watson.
NNAMDIChris Teskey, thank you for joining us.
TESKEYKojo, great to be back. Thanks.
NNAMDIChris Teskey is senior music producer and host of "The Chris Teskey Show" on WAMU's Bluegrass Country. Doc Watson died yesterday at the age of 89. But his music? Well, that'll live forever. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.
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