August 10, 1987 12:00 PM

As Doc Watson tells it, his granny’s old cat was on its last legs anyway back in that summer of 1934. “She’d had that cat, I guess, 14 years, and it got so old, decrepit and blind, it couldn’t eat and it was gettin’ to where it couldn’t even walk,” says Doc, who was 11 at the time.

By coincidence, Doc’s daddy was also having trouble with the homemade banjo that he’d been making for his son. The problem, it seemed, was with the groundhog hide that he had stretched behind the strings. It was just too thick “to give a good tone,” says Doc. “It didn’t work right at all.” So it was, says Doc, that Granny’s tabby was put out of its misery and onto a banjo rim, and the Watson family gained another young musician. “That cat skin made a fine banjo head,” recalls Doc happily. “You could almost read the paper through it.”

In years to come, however, it would be the guitar and not a banjo that would make Arthel “Doc” Watson famous. For the Carolina country boy struck blind in infancy, it would become the means of passage from a life of darkness into one made rich and bright by his artistry. Since his belated discovery in the early 1960s, Watson’s blizzard-quick flat picking and warm, mountain-clear baritone have graced 24 LPs, earned four Grammys and established the soft-spoken Blue Ridge Mountain native as one of America’s premier acoustic musicians. “Horowitz and Heifetz couldn’t have any higher standards,” says Pete Seeger, a Watson fan since the two first met more than 20 years ago.

Now 64, Watson has just released his newest album, titled Portrait, on which he is backed by his longtime bassist, T. Michael Coleman, guitarist Jack Lawrence and a handful of country music’s best session men. The album offers the familiar mix of old time mountain tunes, down-home blues and pop standards that make up Watson’s eclectic repertoire. Like his concerts, his recordings are often capsule courses in American music history. Hoedown dance tunes, gospel hymns, even ’50s rockabilly hits seem part of a cultural continuum when translated through his guitar. As always, though, it is Watson’s rural Southern roots that are most in evidence on the new LP.

The mountain music of his birthplace attracted a following during the folk revival of the ’60s that lifted Watson from regional celebrity to national renown. In 1964 he appeared at the Newport Folk Festival accompanied by his father-in-law, fiddler Gaither Carlton, his brother Arnold, and other members of his family. To a mostly Northern audience more familiar with such folkie pretenders as the Kingston Trio and the Brothers Four, the visiting North Carolinians represented old-time music at its authentic best. Homespun and unpretentious, they were the embodiment of the family string band that had been a Southern tradition for generations.

An old recording of their performance features Doc’s rendition of a bouncy lament titled Blue Ridge Mountain Blues. He had first heard the song years earlier on his family’s windup gramophone, and though its lyrics were simple, its message was heartfelt by the homebody guitarist:

When I was young and in my prime

I left my home in Caroline

Now all I do is sit and pine

For all them folks I left behind.

Watson’s home—then and now—was in Deep Gap, N.C., a tiny mountain hamlet in the western part of the state. His great-great-grandfather had settled there amid its virgin chestnut forests, and it was there, in 1923, that Arthel Watson became the sixth of nine children born to General (his given name) and Annie Watson. He can remember little of the sight he had in infancy, only the physical pain he suffered when blindness mysteriously took hold. There were few doctors in the hill country then, and, says Doc, “knowledge of the eye was limited” anyway. Years later, by the time devoted fans began offering their own corneas for transplanting, doctors knew that there was little chance of success. Like a younger sister who was born with glaucoma, Doc would remain blind.

Watson’s father was a part-time farmer and day laborer who led a singing group at the local church. “He was barely literate enough to read his Bible,” says Watson, “but he had a whole lot of horse sense. When I was 14, he put me to work at the end of a crosscut saw, and if he hadn’t done that, I’d still be sittin’ in a corner somewhere.” Watson’s mother, a sharp, no-nonsense Baptist, sang in the Sunday choir and, at home, lulled her brood to sleep with old-time ballads that Watson would never forget.

Though Doc remembers only one year when food was scarce, life was hardly ever easy. Home, when he was born, was a three-room shack where Watson shared a bed with two of his brothers. “There was no such thing as indoor plumbin’,” he says. “In real cold weather you’d wake up in the morning with frost on your pillow. When hardblowin’ snow came, you had to go up in the attic to sweep up the snow and put it out through the shutter window. If you let it go until you got your big fire hot, it would melt and wet everything.”

For all its material wants, the region was not lacking in history. Daniel Boone had cut through its hills in the 1700s on his way to Kentucky. A century later, a famed love-triangle murder took place within miles of Doc’s home and was immortalized in the song Tom Dooley. By the early years of this century the area teemed with traditional mountain musicians—blind fiddler G.B. Grayson, banjoist Clarence Ashley and others—that later folklorists would revere. In 1924 three local brothers formed a band called the Original Hillbillies. Thanks to them, “hillbilly music” became part of the Nashville lexicon for years to come.

Watson absorbed the local music as well as the big-band songs and pop hits that he heard on the family radio and Victrola. His own playing had yet to begin, however, when he enrolled in the Raleigh School for the Blind at the age of 10. Watson stayed at the institution for four years, and to this day refuses to discuss his experiences there with any but his closest acquaintances. To the poorer students forced to rely on state-paid tuition, “the teachers were tyrants back then,” he says. “I went partway into the seventh grade and quit. I rebelled against their overlord stuff.”

Back at home, Watson went to work on the family farm but continued his schooling with “talking books” from the Library of Congress record catalog. His father’s odd jobs, WPA assignments and occasional relief from the state helped carry the family through the worst of the Depression. By sawing wood, Watson earned enough money to buy a mail-order guitar, and before long he was hitchhiking to nearby towns on weekends to busk on the streets. At 18, he was hired to perform on a radio broadcast in Lenoir, N.C., but the show’s announcer considered his name cumbersome. “Call him ‘Doc,’ ” shouted someone in the audience. The announcer did, and the new name stuck.

Music, however, would not be Doc’s only love. When a young neighbor girl eight years his junior struck up a conversation one day “you might as well have hit me over the head with a bludgeon,” says Doc. Rosa Lee Carlton was a shy third cousin who lived less than a mile away, and soon Doc and his walking stick were making their way to her house each evening. “Every breath of every day was her name,” he says softly. “That’s the way it was.”

The couple wed in 1946—Doc was 23, Rosa Lee 15—and three years later they had son Merle, named after famed finger-picking guitarist Merle Travis. Then in 1951 daughter Nancy arrived. Hoping to supplement the state aid to the blind that he was receiving, Watson traded in his Martin acoustic guitar, bought a Les Paul electric and began performing in a weekend dance band led by Jack Williams, a local railroad worker and part-time piano player. “I recognized the boy’s talent,” says Williams, now 66. “I knew that if he ever went somewhere where somebody heard him who could help him, why, he was on his way.”

Doc’s discovery wouldn’t come quickly, however. He stuck with Williams through the 1950s, bolstering his weekend earnings by tuning pianos. Then, in 1960, two Northern folk enthusiasts headed South to record the legendary banjo player Clarence Ashley. Ashley introduced the pair to a local guitarist who, he said, “could play anything.” Ralph Rinzler, now 53 and an assistant secretary at the Smithsonian Institution, recalls that first meeting well. Rinzler was eager to record an unvarnished, legitimate folk musician, but “Doc was playing the electric guitar at the time,” he says. “I said, ‘Gosh, couldn’t you get an acoustic?’ Doc replied—politely but rather firmly—that this was his guitar and that’s what he was used to playing.”

The next day Rinzler and Ashley set off by truck to visit Ashley’s sister. Watson rode in the cab with the banjoist, Rinzler back on the flatbed by himself. “Since I was alone out there and had about an hour and a quarter to ride, I started to play the banjo,” Rinzler says. “After a bit the truck stopped, and Doc jumped out, walked to the back and said, ‘Let me see that banjo, son.’ Then he played Tom Dooey and played the hell out of it.”

Watson and Rinzler finished the journey on the back of the truck, talking as they rode. For Rinzler the stereotype of hillbillies was out the window. “Doc was charming, witty, articulate—a man of towering intelligence and savvy.” Next day Rinzler went to the Watson home and recorded Doc with his family members and friends. Within months of the recording’s release, the guitarist would be on tour, a local secret no more.

In 1964 Watson’s son, Merle, then 15, joined his father as accompanist, road manager and guide. In the years that followed, the relationship between father and son became legendary. They recorded together, inspired each other musically and enjoyed a friendship closer even than their family bond. Merle’s death two years ago in a tractor accident on his farm left the grief-stricken Doc and his wife, Rosa Lee, with a sadness as deep as it was indelible.

“I don’t know if we’ll ever get through it,” says Watson. “There’s times on the road yet when it’s so hard that you wonder, ‘Well, can I do this show? Can I go on?’ God helped me get to where I am with it, and maybe I can learn to live with it eventually. I don’t know.”

Two years later Merle remains a powerful presence in Watson’s Deep Gap home. The two-story dwelling, modest and cozy, is paneled with wood from Merle’s farm and filled with pictures of the young guitarist on every wall. It is here that Doc will retire next year when he turns 65. Weary now of life on the road, he says he will forsake concerts and start collecting his Social Security. Music hasn’t made him rich, but it has left him comfortably fixed and able, at last, to tend to more private pursuits. Down the driveway is a utility shed that Watson built himself last fall. “It’s not pretty and finished up, but by gravy it’s there, and it’s dry,” he says proudly. “I put the roof on and everything. I did the whole job, and I wouldn’t take anything for the enjoyment I got puttin’ that thing together.”

If not for blindness, Doc says he might have become a carpenter or even an electrical engineer. (He probably could have anyway—years ago he rewired, by touch, the home that he and Rosa Lee then occupied.) “I sure wouldn’t have gone on the road with the guitar,” he says. “But a man’s got to do what he can do. When they let you in this world, they hand you a little box. It’s invisible, of course, and it’s got a few talents in it. And if somethin’ happens that you can’t lean on one, why, you got two, three more you can get hold of.”

Denied the use of many talents, Watson has more than compensated with his musical skills. And he has never forgotten the heritage from which they spring. Three years ago, before Merle’s death, he and his son recorded the old Blue Ridge Mountain Blues again. The years seemed to have added wood smoke to Watson’s voice, a wistfulness to his interpretation. There were some additional lines as well, suggesting an image of Watson’s elders:

I can see two heads of snowy white

And in their window there’s a light

It seems I can hear them both recite

“Oh where is our wanderin’ boy tonight?”

The answer will soon be easy: in the North Carolina mountains that have given birth to eight generations of Doc Watson’s family. The wanderin’ boy is coming home.

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