May has been brutal on the music industry. It began with the loss of Beastie Boy Adam Yauch and ends with the death of North Carolina’s own roots music legend Doc Watson. In between those two music giants we lost Robin Gibb, Donna Summer, and Chuck Brown - all giants in their own genres.
Doc Watson died Tuesday. Like those aforementioned musicians, his influence extended beyond his genre and his generation. Shortly after his death was announced tweets started rolling in. Everyone from Slash to NC’s own Valient Thorr to actor David Guintoli (star of CBS’ “Grimm”) mentioned Watson and included the above YouTube clip of him playing. It was a reminder of his reach and influence.
That influence is evident in music being made today by players that are 60 and 70 years Watson’s juniors. Watson was one of my deceased father’s favorites, but he is also a favorite among fans my age and younger. I remember Seth Avett, who met Watson when he was young, telling me in an early interview about the impact the guitar legend made on him. I’m sure numerous other young Southern musicians have similar stories. I imagine there were fledgling musicians discovering his incredible flatpicking for the first time at Merlefest’s 25th Anniversary just last month.
When I was in my early twenties I had a mandolin playing boyfriend - a former drummer whose course and eventually career was altered in part by his experience at Merlefest. The musicians - many of them famous - that he met and saw perform at Watson’s annual tribute to his son Merle as a 13 or 14-year-old kid helped change his path. He dove into the acoustic music scene in Charlotte - jamming with much older musicians at Tyber Creek Pub in Southend on Sunday nights and soaking in live music at rural festivals. At 17 he saved practically every dime he had for a $4,000 custom made mandolin. Today he makes custom acoustic instruments on a farm in Siler City. If it weren’t for the rich history of music he absorbed here in North Carolina he might have gone in another direction. Having played that first acoustic guitar he built, I can say with confidence that that would've been a real shame.
For musicians like him, the Avetts, Jonathan Wilson, the New Familiars and countless others, the music of pioneering Carolinians like Watson and Earl Scruggs (who died in March) continues to inform, impact and influence. I doubt that will change now that they’re gone.
Wilson, a Forest City native who now lives in L.A., summed it up well during an interview earlier this month: “The tunes and the musicians that have come from that state have been extremely strong. Those are the thoughts that have been swimming in my head since I was a kid. Of course Doc and Earl Scruggs…there’s a potency and sense of skill and dedication that those dudes had. That gives you a confidence and a sense of pride.”