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Just One of the People: A Doc Watson Retrospective Through the Words of His Musical Friends; Rest in Peace

Doc Watson passed away tonight, Tuesday, May 29. Our condolences go out to his friends and family. Below is a piece about Doc written last summer to commemorate the statue that was sculpted and placed on King Street. He was a legend. The High Country was lucky to call him one of its own. Though he might have been the most famous High Country native, you would have never known because he carried himself with such humility. He truly was just one of the people. Doc: Thanks for all the great music and memories. Rest in peace.  

Doc Watson at last year's MusicFest 'n Sugar Grove. Photo by Jesse Wood

A Doc Retrospective Through The Words of His Musical Friends

Story by Jesse Wood

Before Doc Watson became a world-famous musician, he busked on the streets of downtown Boone. He tied a tin can to the neck of his guitar so passersby could drop in some change. Some thought he was panhandling, but Doc didn’t agree.

“That’s the way he supported his family,” T. Michael Coleman said. “He mentioned that many times with pride.”

In 1961, at the age of 38, Doc traveled to New York with Clint Howard and couple others for the first time to play an old-time concert. After they played music, the crowd cheered.

“I thought they felt sorry for us,” Howard, 70, said. “I said, ‘They don’t like this old music. They just feel sorry for us ‘cause we from down the mountain.”

In the early to mid ‘60s, Doc started touring the country solo because there wasn’t enough money to pay a whole band. Howard, who is still friends with Doc, understood. Doc had to make his living with music. Howard, who welded, and the other musicians had more options to fall back on that a blind person didn’t.

In the early ‘70s, David Holt met Doc backstage at a festival in Georgia. At that first meeting, Holt, who wasn’t a professional musician at the time, asked Doc how a blind man dreamed. Doc said, “In feelings.” Twenty years later, after Doc and Holt started playing together seriously, Holt asked whether Doc meant feelings as in fingertips or the heart. Doc said, “Oh you asked me that—both.”

In 1973 and eight years after Merle, his son, had joined Doc on stage, Coleman, an ASU student, began touring with them. Doc and Merle’s crowds were getting bigger, and they needed to amplify their sound, so they invited Coleman, a bassist, into the band. Coleman said that he had high aspirations as a young kid to become a famous musician, make a record, and tour the world.

“Playing with Doc exceeded all of those expectations,” Coleman said. “I was playing with the best guitarist in the world.”

In 1985, Merle died, and within a few days Doc was back on the road.

“I think…largely the reason he went back out there is that is where he felt closest to Merle,” Coleman said.

Over the years since Merle’s death, Doc has played with several sidemen, such as Coleman, Jack Lawrence and Charles Welch. Anytime Doc plays near Boone, Welch, who lives in Foscoe, is right beside Doc playing songs, telling stories and hawking CDs.

Welch, Howard, Holt, Coleman, Herb Key and Wayne Henderson will be playing at the Doc Watson statue celebration as part of the Doc Watson celebration concert in downtown Boone. Henderson, 64, has known Doc since the ‘60s and called him a hero, but said that Doc, 88, doesn’t like to be put on a pedestal.

“For somebody so famous, he is really humble,” Henderson said. “That’s just the way he is. He doesn’t like being bragged on.”

At Doc’s request, the statue in downtown Boone, just across the street from where he started performing in public, will say, “Doc Watson—Just one of the people.”