Stories and tales from a guitar-picking writer, theologian, speaker, blogger and entertainer. From small town quirks to the bizarre realities of family, whacky church life and slightly damaged kinfolk, insights from a reluctant son of the South takes you along. Never know where it’ll end up but it’s sure to be worth the trip.
Some years back Vickie and I vacationed near Boone, NC, home of Doc Watson. We stayed in a place with a view of Grandfather Mountain and traipsed around in the Smokies for a week. It was great. We ventured over to Wilkesboro, NC where the events remembered in the old murder ballad “Tom Dooley” happened. There are many versions of the story and many versions of the song, but here is a more traditional one I recorded a few years ago more in the style of Doc.
Read a most interesting piece on the migration of lowland Scottish people to Appalachia via a stay and invitation to leave Ireland for the new world. Fortunately they brought their music with them and a century later, thanks to their geographical isolation, they had preserved it almost without alteration. Because they were from the lowlands of Scotland, they emphasized the fiddle rather than bagpipes, for which we may be grateful. The highland pipes are wonderful, but you can’t listen to a two hour concert of them. They’re like the accordian–better confined to Lawrence Welk reruns or background. (Yes, I know the old definition of perfect pitch–you through the banjo into the dumpster without touching the sides and it lands on an accordion).
At any rate, these fierce, independent mountain people of the South were hard working, resentful of interference and suspicious of outsiders. And occasionally murderous. Wilkesboro was the capital of the moonshine runners who eventually took their souped up cars and started NASCAR. “Family Feud” was not a television show. It was a matter of honor and violence.
Thank goodness the territorial domination of men over women is no longer the same among intelligent people, but the song is a memory of a time when things were a certain way and shame was powerful. You may have heard the Kingston Trio’s version or any of a hundred folkies in the Sixties. I was attracted to that version when I started playing, but I like this one better.
In Wilkesboro they put on an outdoor drama every summer of the story of Tom Dooley and the murder of poor Laurie Foster. It starts with a Civil War re-eneactment, allowing the men and boys to shoot off blanks for way too long with almost no relevance to the story advancement, but it’s great fun. We waited out a downpour to see it, and had a great time. It’s a sad story and justice was severe in those days, but at least there were concessions. It’s worth a see. Take some earplugs.
Maybe it’s true what Elie Wiesel told us–to forget our sins is as great a transgression as to have committed them in the first place. Remembering and grieving are essential to healing.
It’s a good time to polish up friendships, love family, forgive, thank and bless.
So I turned sixty, and for some reason the people around me celebrated for a week. I know with Ebola, the Ukraine, ISIS and Israel causing the end-of-the-worlders to crank out their book my firthday isn’t a big deal globally, but it has been to me.
Over the last five years I have laid to rest a close friend, a father-in-law (who was a second father to me) and a mentor and colleague I have known for 21 years and was my predecessor. The Shadow has been around lately. I have grandchildren. There is likely more life behind than before me years-wise. You know—morbidity hangs around. Joints ache a little more.
You’ve poured a lot of concrete by sixty. Decisions, patterns, character, and events harden into tracks out of which it’s hard to escape. On the other hand, those same tracks give a certain comfort and stability to life. It’s hard to break them up.
The upside has surprised me, though. A certain amount of “I just don’t care about that anymore.” I don’t care very much at all what others think about what I think. I don’t need to correct them all Continue reading “Sixty is Just Alright”
A few days ago, I wrote about the too-soon loss of Doug Dillard, an extraordinary banjo player who was a bridge figure between Bill Monroe and the “pure bluegrass” (which is itself an irony, since Monroe was actually an innovator himself. He took a hodgepodge of what is ssometimes called “old time music,” consisting of fiddle tunes for
dancing, old folk tunes, blues and other music that flowed from Appalachia and the south and forged a unique sound dominated by the mandolin and banjo and fiddle. He was not beyond experimenting himself, even bringing an accordion in a time or two. (Old banjo joke: “Perfect pitch—throw the banjo into the dumpster without hitting the sides and landing on the accordion).
What became the new “bluegrass,” newgrass, new acoustic and everything else flowed from the sources in Scotch-Irish music from the mountains and all of those streams, and several powerful innovators, like Monroe, Scruggs, the Stanley Brothers, and the Carter family. They influenced pop, rock, country and Elvis, all of whom (including the Beatles) declared their love for Monroe. This melting pot of music was, I sometimes think, an artistic shadow world where segregation couldn’t reach. The great traditions of music inevitably touched, borrowed and intertwined in ways that Jim Crow could not control.
The musicians themselves might simply say, “Music is music.” Can’t pen it up or lock it down. It flows out of a life, a tradition, a stream, and then when it meets another one, something new and wonderful is the result. In music, uniqueness and blending and mixing can’t help it. If our politics and culture are corrupted by control, domination and resistance to the new, art is the great underminer. It remembers tradition and changes it at the same time.
Which brings me to Arthel Lane Watson, known affectionately as “Doc.” Doc Watson is like Woodstock. Seems like everybody met, heard or saw Doc at sometime or other.
I am an exception. I have only known Doc on YouTube and CDs and guitar tablature and stories and books. That’s an extraordinary fact, given that I’ve been going to hear acoustic music at festivals, clubs, and concerts pretty seriously over the past fifteen years. I’ve gone to guitar camp three times at Steve Kaufman’s acoustic “kamp”, where Doc is revered and talked about like a medieval monk would think about St. Anthony. I just never got there. Preachers don’t get weekends off in May, generally, to go to “Merlefest,” the acclaimed festival that Doc started as a perpetual memorial to his son, Merle. Merle and Doc performed together for many years, but after he died in a tractor accident, Merlefest became Doc’s homage to his son. It is one of the largest music festivals around and you will hear the top acoustic players and performers there.
So I may be the only person in the world who never met Doc Watson AND missed Woodstock. Some lives, however, manage to go way beyond themselves. Every guitar player worth anything has favorite “licks,” a little four or eight or sixteen note chop that you can pop in now and then in an open space, something that says, “that’s me in there.” I have the famous “G-run” that every bluegrass guitar player knows, of course, but I have a dozen others that, when I don’t know what else to do, I call on it. I have one I got years ago when I learned “Beaumont Rag,” one of Doc’s most famous pieces, and one that nearly every picker learns eventually. Glenn Tolbert taught the lick to me in another song, but then I began to hear that little eight note signature in a lot of places. “That’s a lick from old Doc Watson,” Glenn told me solemnly. So I kept it and since it was one of the first licks I learned for songs in the key of C, I found it coming along pretty often. So I expect Ol’ Doc will be with me right on to my end.
So Doc has immortality. There isn’t a guitar picker in rock, country, blues, bluegrass or jazz that doesn’t know Doc. Pretty good for a blind old country boy. When Arthel Lane Watson came along, sixth of nine kids, and lost his eyesight before age two, the prospects didn’t look bright. When he died recently, every major newspaper in the country from the New York Times to LA ran a story about him. They refered to him as a legend, a “guitar wizard,” and other superlatives.
Arthel dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working for his Dad. He could fix a car by sound and rewired his own house. How a blind man did that and passed inspection I’ll never know. Doc Watson was a wonder. But it’s the picking you need to hear. You can read about him in one of the stories online—Just type in “Doc Watson” and read. I’d rather you listen and hear. Yes, since he came along there are faster pickers, but nobody was doing what he did until he did it.
The very last one below is a haunting rendition of “Amazing Grace.” Yes, indeed. “I once was blind, but now I see.” Sing it, brother. I like to think about you laying those new eyes you get from God on Merle for the very first time.