When I received a knock on the door in Studio B from our news director Schultze, I knew something was wrong. She asked me if I knew that Doc Watson had passed. I did not know and the news caused decades of memories to suddenly flow over me as I let the news sink in. I had heard of the recent fall and his surgery in the hospital in Winston Salem. I was aware he was fragile. But to me, Doc was larger than life and he seemed immortal. This couldn’t be true.
I was at MerleFest at the end of April and I’m kicking myself now that I never actually saw Doc. I had seen him many times before and there were 15 stages to visit and usually there was a crowd around him. I did get to hear him during the local broadcast of the festival and he sounded weak. Fans told me that he got very emotional during the annual dedication to his son, Merle (the festival’s namesake), and a big screen video allowed the whole audience to see Doc crying. The crowd began to understand that they were perhaps seeing him for the last time. Doc passed away Tuesday, May 28 at 89.
In the mid ’70s, I attended my first ever bluegrass festival in Martinsville, Virginia. I remember the long drive and the anticipation of seeing Bill Monroe, Jimmy Martin, Ralph Stanley and Doc Watson. When we arrived, we learned that all the headliners canceled because they were afraid they weren’t going to be paid probably. There was one exception.
Doc Watson showed up and played extra sets. Just a few years earlier, “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” had been released. This landmark double album featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, at the peak of their popularity, joined by traditional country music legends. My friends and I wandered into folk and bluegrass through the backdoor after playing rock and roll because of this album. From this landmark collection, we discovered Mother Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin and Earl Scruggs. However, the star of the album was clearly Doc Watson – and there he was right in front of me, when (for whatever reason) everybody else decided not to play. I will never ever forget that.
A few years later, I began hosting radio programs on WKSU in Northeast Ohio and I remember the thrill of playing Doc Watson records. It still thrills me. It probably always will. In 2004, Doc and his grandson, Richard, played a show with David Holt at The Kent State Folk Festival. There was a moment backstage when only two people were in the room. Those two people were Doc Watson and me. I was not about to let this moment slip by and I walked up to him and introduced myself. I remember saying, “Doc, I’ve been lucky to have hosted radio programs for 25 years and you have always been a big part of those broadcasts.” He responded, “Thank you son. You should know that I appreciate what you do, too.” I will have that memory forever.