In idle moments, I think of the great musicians and songwriters whose death would – will – feel like genuinely personal bereavement, upsetting in a startling, unpredictable way. Dylan would be there, of course, and Randy Newman and, probably, Willie Nelson. But top of the list of wrenching musical departures, I have discovered today, is Doc Watson who has just died, aged 89.
Powerful attachments to a singer or an author are often a matter of timing. Doc Watson entered my life in the 1980s and rescued me from the straightjacket of contemporary music. An astonishing flat-picking guitarist and warm-hearted interpreter of bluegrass and ragtime songs, he made old songs seem new and, occasionally, gave new songs the feel of an ancient classic. He breathed life into a tradition of music which had seemed, to me, dusty and only historically interesting.
The way he played the acoustic guitar – fast, accurate yet heartfelt – was a thing of wonder. There are other great flat-pickers, but none can quite bring what Doc provided. Perhaps the tragedies in his life (blindness from childhood, the loss of his beloved son Merle in 1985) had something to do with that quality, or maybe it was his faith, an old-time religion which would normally give me the heebie-jeebies, but seemed just fine when Doc was articulating it.
Discovering an author can change your life but, for someone who plays an instrument, a musical influence is even more profound; it is there, the same yet changing, every time you play. I think of Doc Watson playing Solid Gone, or Gonna Lay Down My Old Guitar, Alberta or Deep River Blues. In fact, it was probably his example, before all others, which has kept me playing when my music seemed to be going nowhere.
Doc Watson was joyfully engaged in playing music in his eighties as he ever was. I saw him twice, five and six years ago, when he was playing at Merlefest, the great alcohol-free, acoustic festival in North Carolina which was named after his son (and will now, one hopes, be called ‘Docfest’). After one of his sets, I stood near him in one of the tents as he was shown a new amplifier that he was considering buying. That’s the way to be at the age of 84.
Doc Watson played at this year’s Merlefest exactly a month before he died, to the last a man whose soul was full of warmth, generosity and the joy of music.