Author: Campbell, Bruce

Mighty Fine, Son, Mighty Fine

I have not, to the best of my recollection, participated in lengthy paeans to departed musical heroes, with the exception of a piece on John Lennon a few Decembers back. Yes, I wrote about John Lennon in my CBA Welcome column! Some musicians have a impact that is very nearly universal. Most of the comments on my tribute to Lennon reflected that, but there were a few grumbles about his politics.

The recent passing of Doc Watson requires me to comment. If you’ve read my “hooked on bluegrass” treatise, you’ll know I came to bluegrass by degrees. There was no single “whoa, this is bluegrass? I love it!” moment. I listened to David Grisman, David Bromberg, Burl Ives, Tony Rice, and I listened to Doc and Merle.

Two things jumped out immediately upon hearing Doc Watson for the first time. First, the picking – it was astonishing! It was fast, it was clean, it was tasteful and it was melodic. I had never heard anything like it. And as fast as the picking was sometimes, it neverseemed rushed or furious – it was always perfect for the song at hand.

Second, there was Doc’s voice – distinctive, yet immediately familiar and welcoming. My sister said “He sounds like Burl Ives!”, and come to think of it, he did, actually. But while there were similarities in timbre, I think Doc’s voice had the sound of the south, and of the mountains.

I have to confess, I didn’t know much about Doc Watson the man, right up until his death. I did know he was blind, but I didn’t know where he came from, or how he got into the music business. I first encountered Doc as part of Doc and Merle Watson, and I remember when Merle died and I felt very bad for Doc, losing a child.

Doc’s talents were extraordinary, and that was enough to make him a major influence in music, but he had another quality that came through in his playing and singing. He had a sweetness, and a sense of gentleness that permeated his sound. It came through in his effortless phrasing with the “just-right”diction, and it came through in his playing.

I mentioned his solos never seemed hurried – they always seemed devoid of bombast, or braggadocio, despite jaw-dropping speed and clarity. And how often in a song did you hear Doc pass the solo off to someone else in the ensemble? “Oh, pick that guitar, son!” he would say, and you just KNEW that if you ever got to play with Doc, he would hand you that solo, and he would tell you it sounded “mighty fine, son, mighty fine”.

To sum it up, while I never met Doc Watson, I considered him a friend. His music always made me feel good, and through him, I really felt the stories in the songs he sang. Bluegrass can’t claim Doc as its own – he played such a wide variety of roots music, and he seemed to understand it all, and deliver it in a straightforward, honest manner. He did it for all the right reasons. Of course he was my friend.

Posted:  6/6/2012

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