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An Interview With Biographer Dr. Kent Gustavson on Mountainman Doc Watson from Pastor Terry Fletcher on Vimeo.

There's an old saying that every biographer comes to hate his subject, but Kent Gustavson only seems to have developed a greater regard for Doc Watson, as a man and a musician, over the course of writing this first full-length account of the guitar legend's life. Arthel Lane Watson was born on March 3, 1923, near the town of Deep Gap in the mountains of western North Carolina. Though born blind and poor in an Appalachian backwater, he would become one of the most important "discoveries" of the '60s folk explosion, an influence on myriad young artists, and the acknowledged master of the flat-pick guitar style.

Dr. Gustavson draws upon formidable research and extensive interviews to provide an impossibly detailed portrait of Doc's life. It has been a life largely defined by his relationships with family. His parents encouraged him to partake of activities as though he were sighted and his siblings treated him that way. His father helped him buy his first guitar and, in one of the many delightful details that pepper the book, helped him make a banjo from the skin of a cat. With the exception of some unhappy time at a state school for the blind, Doc would spend his whole life in the hollow he grew up in.

The next big relationship in his life came when he fell in love with young Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of Gaither Carlton, whose fiddle playing greatly influence Doc. Rosa Lee became pregnant with Doc's child when she was 15 and the two married shortly thereafter, on June 8, 1946, a union that endures to this day. They lost that first child but a son, Merle, and daughter, Nancy, followed. Merle would eventually learn guitar himself and develop into Doc's musical partner, manager, and friend. Most of all, the author notes that he became Doc's "lead boy," the person charged with guiding a blind man through the outside world.

During this time Doc was absorbing all kinds of musical styles--folk, bluegrass, jazz, big band, country, rockabilly, etc.--and playing on a local radio show, where he got his nickname, and then with a local group called Jack Williams and the Rail-Riders. (The necessity of being heard in noisy settings saw him switch from acoustic to electric guitar during these years.) But he was not truly "discovered" until he was in his late 30s and Ralph Rinzler came to town.

Rinzler was a child of Russian-Jewish immigrants who grew up in New York City but got hooked on traditional American music in his youth. After attending Swarthmore, he befriended Pete Seeger, joined the Greenbriar Boys and played with acts like Joan Baez. But he also traveled to the South to try and find musicians who had played on the Folkway Records "Anthology of American Folk Music." One such expedition brought him in contact with Doc and Rinzler was stunned by the artist's version of "Tom Dooley" in particular. Rinzler wanted to record Doc playing an acoustic -- for reasons of traditional purity -- but Doc was insistent on his electric. Rinzler won the day when the electric proved too dominant on the recording session, even when turned way down. In March of 1961, Rinzler brought Doc north to play with the Clarence Ashley Group at a concert in New York City, the Friends of Old Time Music show at PS 41 in Greenwich Village. Doc was praised in the New York Times review of the gig and his career was well and truly launched.

Doc seems to have had an uneasy relationship with his newfound fame. He apparently resented Rinzler's attempts top pigeonhole his as a sort of relic of a bygone era, where Doc wanted to exploit all the forms he was actually familiar with. And while the income from performing would enable him to support his family, it would also take him away from them and from his home more than he liked. It was in this context that Merle grew ever more important in his life, constantly at his side. But the road and the lifestyle of major music stars would tempt Merle in ways they never did Doc and the son's partying and carousing took on a legendary quality of their own. Merle seems to have realized he was headed for a metaphorical crash, though it was a literal one, involving a drunken tractor ride, that killed him in 1985.

As much as Dr. Gustavson reveres Doc, he does portray him as a very different man after the loss of Merle, less open to helping new artists, less co-operative with press and promoters, less available to even old friends. This gives Doc's story something of the arc of a tragedy. Having overcome so much to improbably achieve world renown as a musician, it was also the music that claimed the beloved son on whom he was so dependent. Today the son is remembered every year at MerleFest, one of the country's major acoustic music festivals. And Doc still performs and occasionally records, but he mostly prefers to be left in peace, with his wife and family. It's hard to begrudge him that.

It's been a remarkable life and Dr. Gustavson tells his story well. The book is a must read for fans and will certainly turn those unfamiliar with Doc Watson into new fans.


Grade: (A-)


See also:

Music Literature
Kent Gustavson Links:

    -WIKIPEDIA: Doc Watson
    -BOOK SITE: DocWatsonBook
    -RADIO SITE: Sound Authors (hosted by Dr. Kent Gustavson)
    -FAN SITE: Doc's Guitar, a site dedicated to the guitar and music of Doc Watson
    -WIKIPEDIA: MerleFest
    -ARTICLE: Singer Abigail Washburn Calls Doc Watson’s Music Something Truly American
    -INTERVIEW: with Kent Gustavson (BlogTalkRadio, 1/9/2011)
    -PROFILE: Living Legacy: Doc Watson's immeasurable influence on the guitar and folk community (Craig Havighurst, June 2003, Acoustic Guitar)
    -PROFILE: Doc of ages (David Menconi, March 2, 2003, News & Observer)
    -PROFILE: Doc Watson: Flatpicking Legend (Dan Miller, September/October 1998, Flatpicking Guitar Magazine)
    -ARCHIVES: Doc Watson (NPR)
    -Flatpicking Guitar Magazine
    -ARCHIVES: Doc Watson (Bluegrass Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Blind But Now I See (Dustin Ogdin , No Depression)
    -REVIEW: of Blind But Now I See (Dan Tackett, Bluegrass Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Blind But Now I See (Ted Lehmann's Bluegrass, Books, and Brainstorms)
    -REVIEW: of Blind But Now I See (Steve Carr,
    -REVIEW: of Blind But Now I See (Greg Yost, Country Standard Time)

Book-related and General Links: