Not so long ago we were saying farewell to Earl Scruggs, the Cleveland County boy who revolutionized the playing of the 5-string banjo with his rapid-fire picking. Scruggs died March 28 at 88, a devastating loss to the world of music.
Now there's word that Arthel "Doc" Watson of Deep Gap died May 29 at age 89. The one-two punch of losing these electrifying musicians who developed their own styles of picking and set new standards of excellence for an amazing variety of music is just too much to bear. Watson, blind since infancy, taught himself how to flat-pick on the guitar in ways that sometimes made folks forget about the fiddle or the banjo in traditional Southern Appalachian music.
I never knew these men personally except by the many hours I spent listening to their music and watching them perform on TV. But I was always impressed by how each developed their God-given talents in ways that ought to be inspiring to those of us who just fool around with musical instruments, and to those who are already masters of the strings.
And I always liked the story of how Watson got his nickname. An announcer somewhere observed that Arthel was a hard name to say, and asked those in the audience if they could think of a nickname. Someone, no doubt thinking of Sherlock Holmes' sidekick Doctor Watson, shouted "Doc", and Doc Watson he became.
But my favorite Doc Watson story has nothing to do with music. The late Hugh Morton once told me that Life Magazine had assigned him to take photographs of Watson soon after he was discovered as the big-time musician he would prove to be. Morton drove over to Deep Gap to shoot the picture but no one came to the door when he knocked. Morton hollered for Watson, and heard Watson holler back from around the house. Morton walked around the corner and saw Watson up on a two-story ladder, hammer in hand, repairing some bad siding. "Hand me that board down yonder, will you, Hugh?" Watson asked.
Makes you think: If a blind man can get up on a ladder and fix a house and revolutionize the way a guitar is played, what can he not do?
Goodbye, Doc. Say hey to Earl for me.