Busking ain't what it used to be

A family story about Doc Watson before he became a folk music sensation

Edited, August 24.

Before he became an international star and a national treasure, Doc Watson played for tips on park benches and storefront stoops all over western North Carolina. It’s part of the lore of Doc Watson — the blind, flatpicking guitar legend and genre-bending singer — and how he later paid it forward to other busking musicians Doc and family members ran across in their travels. 

My family has a connection. My oldest sibling’s first husband owned a country store (general merchandise, along with fresh meat and produce) on Highway 18 in Boomer Township, southwestern Wilkes County. Doc, a cousin on the in-laws’ side, would busk in front of the store. My sister Sigmon didn’t give it a lot of thought, though the customers enjoyed the music. 

Some years later, she told me, a friend rushed up to her, thrilled that she got tickets to “the big concert” in Boone. 

What big concert?, Sigmon asked. 

Why, Doc Watson, her friend replied. 

“You mean Doc Watson, the blind guy who used to play at the store?”

My sister was dumbfounded. But yes, the cousin from Deep Gap who years earlier played old-timey tunes on guitar and banjo was a star.

Not exactly an overnight sensation. He was in pushing 40 when he played that big concert. Doc had played electric guitar in a rockabilly and Western swing band in the ‘50s. Before that, he busked whenever he could get a ride and find an audience. Including Lackey’s Market in Boomer, when he was visiting relatives.

As journalist David Menconi wrote for Our State magazine, 

He was a familiar sight in downtown Boone during the 1940s and ’50s. Hoping to attract spare change, he would play in front of the Watauga Bank, a cup of pencils set before him: Give Doc a coin, and you’d get a pencil — and a song.

In 1960, Ralph Rinzler, a music curator and archivist for the Smithsonian Institution, was recording the surviving old-timey artists. He met string player Clarence Ashley, a popular musician and comedian from the ‘20s and ‘30s, at the Old Time Fiddlers Convention at Union Grove, N.C. Rinzler asked Ashley to record a few tracks. Doc was Ashley’s neighbor and playing partner. Rinzler wanted to keep the sound authentic, and handed Doc a Martin acoustic guitar. The musician reluctantly took it, played a few bars. As Watson’s Washington Post obituary said, “He never returned to the [electric] Les Paul.”

Clarence (and Doc) were swept into the folk revival of the early 1960s. They toured the nation playing folk festivals and concert halls. Ashley died in 1967. By then, Doc and his son Merle had launched separate careers, inspiring countless musicians, fans, and other followers. Doc didn’t stop picking until his death in 2012.

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COVID knocked the would-be Doc Watsons of the 2020s for a loop. Lockdowns, store closures, and bans on public gatherings forced all musicians — especially those just getting on their feet — to seek different ways to reach audiences and maintain their craft. And pay the bills. Yep, they needed cutting-edge technology to sustain a tradition of outreach that has spanned centuries.

I’ll examine some of those innovative methods, and introduce a  few artists who’ve used them, in Wednesday’s edition.

Weekend reading

The Assembly (sub possibly required) comes through again with a hopeful story about NASCAR’s future, highlighting the small tracks (like those at North Wilkesboro) where it all began.

• I spent way too much time this weekend chatting/arguing with N.C. State fans about the Wolfpack’s disqualification from the College World Series. D1Baseball.com offered a timeline confirming my take — the entire Pack team hadn’t been vaccinated, subjecting the players and coaches to stricter testing than those teams that were fully vaxxed. (IOW, everyone else at Omaha.) Unfortunately, a few guys actually got sick. The NCAA botched the PR. But the organization followed its own protocols. You can debate whether the protocols were too cautious, though at least three members of the traveling party were, you know, sick and had positive COVID tests. Republicans and other right-wingers are trying to make partisan hay out of this. Yet another reason to be a proud independent.

• More shameless self-promotion: The Raleigh Uke Jam plays Tuesday, 7-9 p.m., at Pelagic Beer & Wine Company, 300 Pace Street, in Raleigh’s Oakwood neighborhood (near Krispy-Kreme). It’s our first Pelagic gig in 16 months! Drop by, have a beer, and listen to some tunes.

• Some positive reaction to the initial podcast. I hope to do a new episode every other Friday. I expect my hosting skills to improve with practice. Thanks for the feedback and thanks, as always, for reading and subscribing!