While the rest of us were dragging the Christmas tree to the curb or getting over a New Year's headache, Doc Watson was polishing off the last of a German chocolate cake baked by his Deep Gap neighbor, Betty Greene Triplett. "Rosa Lee, my wife, used to make them all the time," says Doc, "and this lady made one just about as good." Not that there's a WWF Chocolate Cake Smackdown in the offing; Rosa Lee and Betty are longtime friends.
Cake is just one of the things that neighbors do for each other around here. Doc sang at Betty's wedding six years ago, and at her mother's funeral last spring. "He's just a wonderful friend," says Triplett, who's been secretary and treasurer of her local Baptist church since 1967. "He and Rosa Lee both are."
Being semi-retired these days also affords Watson, 77, a little more time to be handy around the house. "Once in a while I might pick up the guitar for 10 minutes just to keep the fingers in shape," he reports. But otherwise, "I light the oven when it burns out, or put bulbs in the lamps, things like that. I do whatever I can to help out the little lady. She's not as strong as she used to be, and I do the best I can around here."
And, he adds, "I enjoy petting the cats."
Still, Watson admits that he's "working more than a retired person should." Along with grandson Richard (Merle's son) and buddy David Holt, the five-time Grammy Award winner will perform Jan. 12 at the Stewart Theatre on the N.C. State University campus. The sold-out program is sponsored by PineCone.
"One little financial advantage to that is, if you work some at my age, it does raise your social security check every year," he says slyly. "So I don't mind getting back a little of that money I've been putting in Uncle Sam's pocket over the years."
That Watson could switch so easily from old-time numbers with Holt to blues-based traditional tunes with Richard on the same bill speaks to his musical fluency across styles and generations. Since picking up a $12 Stella Guitar in 1935, Watson has perfected a relentlessly precise yet utterly effortless picking style that sends warmly shaped notes floating off the strings. His calm, confident baritone remains undiminished.
Over the years, he's recorded in countless styles, including old time (Old Timey Concert with Clint Howard and Fred Rice, Vanguard), rockabilly (Docabilly, Sugar Hill 3836), blues (Picking the Blues, with Merle Watson, Flying Fish) and religious music (On Praying Ground, Sugar Hill). His more recent efforts with Holt (An Evening with Doc Watson and David Holt, High Windy Audio) and Richard Watson (Third Generation Blues, Sugar Hill) demonstrate his continuing ability to remain fresh in the face of traditional material. The same is true of his collaborations with players like David Grisman, Alan O'Bryant, Jack Lawrence, Curley Sechler, Stuart Duncan and James Kerwin (Doc and Dawg, Acoustic Disc).
"I enjoy playing with good musicians," Watson says matter-of-factly. "David Grisman is one of those guys who's very adaptable. We would play anything from 'Shady Grove,' the old-time courting tune, to 'Knights in White Satin.' You'd be surprised at what we come up with."
But aside from repertoire, do these pairings teach Watson himself anything about playing? "You might learn something new about phrasing--I think that every time you pick up an instrument, you learn a little bit," he says. "To put it honestly, it's a matter of enjoyment to play. And if you learn something, that's just one of the good things that comes along with it."
Still, Watson admits that he's not into performing and recording as much as he used to be. When asked if there's anyone he'd like to play with that he hasn't, he says simply, "I'm sure somebody will come along that I'll enjoy recording some with, or playing on stage with."
He should have no problem finding those opportunities, given today's revival of interest in acoustic music. Having been "discovered" by folklorist Ralph Rinzler during the "folk music revival" of the '60s, Watson became an icon of that era. But is he witnessing a parallel "mini-folk revival" today?
"There's an interest in acoustic music--let's put it that way--not really a folk revival," Watson says. "The folk revival focus was on traditional--not ethnic--music. But this upsurge covers 'the whole shebang,' as the old-timers used to say. It covers the whole acoustic music thing, [from] old-time tunes all the way to what I call 'citygrass,' the modern sounding bluegrass. It's almost jazz, the way it's played by Bela Fleck."
One thing remains the same, however: the mutual admiration and appreciation between Watson and the audience.
"In the '60s, I couldn't believe that people would sit and listen to real ethnic music from this area, the old-time ballads and all that kind of thing, and really be attentive," he admits. "That some old boy like myself would sit on the stage in a chair, and just play, and put my heart into it--and that they really enjoyed it. They had 10,000 people out there at Newport [Folk Festival], and I just couldn't believe the attentiveness of that huge audience we played for. And people still do that, for the things that David Holt and I do--the old-time tunes--or when Richard and I play blues-oriented things like 'Summertime.'"
Nevertheless, Watson continues to enjoy singing for smaller gatherings at church. And at the request of another friend, he and grandson Richard performed on a local Mountain TV telethon for the Appalachian District Health Department Hospice in Boone. "I'll brag a little--it made a good bit of money," Watson says. "It was a very rewarding thing to do, and it's really worth it. Hospice is a great organization."
As a self-described homebody these days, he's content to count the blessings in his own backyard. "I got enough tools to start a garage with for Christmas," he says, admitting to tinkering with the lawnmower. But did he make any New Year's resolutions?
"No," he says. "I'll tell you what I did do, with all my humble heart--as humble as I could get it--I asked the good Lord to help me with this coming year, and help me to do what was right. And I left it at that. You make resolutions, and lots of times you can't keep them--most of the time. So you make a decision that you'll do the best you can. And you know, that covers a lot of territory."