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Doc Watson (1923-2012): A Video Primer

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The "doc" is out -- sadly. Doc Watson's death Tuesday came as a surprise to roots music fans, despite his not-so-tender age of 89, since he'd been wowing devotees with his legendary flat-picking guitar prowess just a month ago at Merlefest, a North Carolina music festival held annually in his honor.

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Doc Watson

For this video roundup, we found fan-shot videos from that final festival appearance late last month, but also bring you rare clips that date all the way back to the 1950s and '60s, when the blind singer/guitarist came to fame as part of the great folk scare. Here are just a few examples of the daily and nightly prowess that made him a musician's musician... several of which find him joined by other acoustic greats...

WATSON WITH EARL SCRUGGS AND RICKY SKAGGS

A bittersweet reminder that we lost banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs just prior to losing Watson, his guitar-playing equivalent. The two elder gents were joined by (relative) youngster Ricky Skaggs for "The Three Pickers," a concert that was filmed for PBS' Great Performances and released on DVD and CD in 2003, when Watson was about to turn 80. In this excerpt, about five minutes in, he offers a quick summation of his life story. "The good lord's been good to me," he tells the crowd. "If I could see, the guitar would have been a beloved thing to me, but it would've been a hobby. I'd have been a carpenter, or an electrical engineer... But the good lord said 'Doc Watson, you're gonna pick.'"

WATSON AND SCRUGGS... WAY BACK IN THE DAY

If you want to see younger incarnations of the guitar and banjo greats, check out this footage of the two of them -- with their sons, Merle Watson and Randy Scruggs -- playing in Doc's backyard in North Carolina in the 1960s. Scruggs points out that nothing they're about to play has been rehearsed. "Usually it'll sound better if you don't rehearse it," Watson chimes in. Easy for him to say!

VISITING "SHADY GROVE" WITH DAVID GRISMAN

In a spoken introduction to this live clip, Watson can be heard telling the story of how he got his first guitar. When he was 13, his father left him with a borrowed guitar, and offered to buy him one if he could learn something on the loaner in the coming hours. "I could play a tune on it by the time he got back from work, so he had to keep his word." What an investment.

PICKING FOR PETE SEEGER

Seeger doesn't actually join in in this clip, but looks on as Watson makes an appearance on his TV show in 1966, playing "St. James Hospital."

A GUITAR LESSON

Watson did instructional videos, though maybe the real instruction should be "Kids, don't try this at home." At the end of this excerpt, he says, "That got a little involved, didn't it?" — sounding a bit surprised at his own carrying on when he's trying to keep it simple.

"DEEP RIVER BLUES"... IN A TUX

More truly vintage stuff, and one of the few times you would've ever seen Watson performing in a bow tie.

GETTING CROSS-GENERATIONAL WITH CHRIS THILE

Ten years ago, Watson hooked up at Merlefest with the members of the (since-defunct) neo-bluegrass sensation Nickel Creek, including a version of "Amazing Grace" that featured prodigy Chris Thile on mandolin and vocals.

A "FLY"-ING SWAN SONG

At this year's Merlefest in late April, Watson sat in at length with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, putting his still nimble flat-picking to work on tunes that included the afterlife-themed gospel standard "I'll Fly Away." Just a month later, he made good on that promise.

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