Doc Watson died last week at the age of 89 and I quietly mourned his passing, as will many around the world. He was the single most important influence on my playing. I can still recall the first time I heard him. It was a recording of several live performances at the Newport Folk Festival and his speed, accuracy and exhilarating musicality was a revelation. I went in search of everything I could find of him on vinyl and discovered a musician who seemed to embody almost the entire history of American traditional music – folk, bluegrass, country, the blues, rockabilly, even the popular music of his youth. Yet, for all the diversity of his repertoire he was never less than utterly convincing.
If you have never heard him try and find his first two or three solo albums. Recorded for the Vanguard label back in the 60s they are among the most important albums of that remarkable decade. I doubt it would be an exaggeration to say that there is not a virtuoso acoustic guitarist alive today who hasn’t been profoundly influenced, either directly or indirectly, by the playing of Doc Watson. He was that important. And yet it is said of him that for all the accolades he gathered during his long life he remained a humble, engaging man.
I sat for hours beside the turntable in my parents house, dropping the needle on to the vinyl, slowing down the disc to try and work out what he was doing. I was in awe of his ability to translate traditional fiddle tunes to his acoustic guitar and still retain the speed and accuracy of the best fiddle players. I tried to learn several of them but never quite mastered the technique – at least not enough to feel comfortable performing them on stage.
His finger picking style intrigued me when I discovered that he used only his thumb and first finger. To this day I still occasionally drop Deep River Blues into my concert sets – I have been playing it ever since I first learned it back in the late 60s. Now when I do it will have a slightly different introduction. I will honour his passing and quietly thank him for his inspirational music.