For years my love of country music was a bit of a guilty secret in a group of friends who listened mostly to rock-n-roll, punk, blues, and reggae. I remember once in my twenties, while I was playing Hank Williams in our group house in Somerville, my housemate Charlie going up into his room and playing his saxophone at full blast to register his displeasure. I listened to real country, country blues, folk, and bluegrass. Besides Hank Williams (whom I had loved ever since 1970, when I had heard a nameless musician sing Jambalaya at the Nameless Coffee House in Harvard Square), my favorites were Jimmie Rodgers, Johnny Cash, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs; and my favorite, Doc Watson.
In December 1970, when I was sixteen and had been in the States for less than a year, Andrew took me to the Boston Tea Party on Lansdowne Street near the Fenway. The line-up that night was the Incredible String Band (pretty, but for me at least, forgettable), Mimi Fariña, who had a lovely voice and sang Pack Up Your Sorrows (though sadly, without Richard Fariña, who had died four years earlier); and Doc Watson, with his son Merle, whose performance that night instilled in me a lifelong love of his music.
Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012) would have been in his late 40s when I saw him in 1970, Born and raised in Deep Gap, North Carolina, near the border of Eastern Tennessee, he was like no other American I had ever yet met. I did not know at the time that he had been involved in the American folk music revival and had played at the Newport Folk Festival back in 1963: he seemed to me to be the down-home authentic article, uncontaminated by outside influences—although I was to learn that he was eclectic and experimental, drawing from traditional and modern folk, country, bluegrass, and blues, and even throwing in the occasional rockabilly performance. His virtuoso flat-picking was so fast that it boggled the mind, and his voice was true and clear—I could listen forever and never tire, to Deep River Blues, Shady Grove, Banks of the Ohio (performed here with Bill Monroe), and so many more.
It was on that night in 1970 when I heard him play Tennessee Stud for the first time. I was to learn later that it was his most popular song, a big crowd-pleaser. Although it clearly wasn’t one of Doc Watson’s own favorites, he seemed to be resigned to delivering to the audience what they wanted. Immediately after his first song someone yelled out, “Tennessee Stud,” and although Doc seemed a little annoyed, he eventually obliged, hamming it up just a little (I whupped her brother and I whupped her paw), and, after the last There never was a hoss like the Tennessee Stud, there was such a cacophony of heehaws you would have thought that we were in a barnyard. If there’s anything more irritating than a down-home country boy saying heehaw!, it’s a highly-educated Bostonian saying hee haw! the way he imagines a country boy would; but Doc just maintained his enigmatic expression, nodded quietly to Merle, and went on with the show.
A few years later, probably in the late 1970s, we went to see Doc and Merle Watson again, at the Paradise on Commonwealth Avenue. Again those irritating young men started calling out “Tennessee Stud” from the very outset. As if Doc didn’t have a massive repertoire and a line-up of songs ready to perform. But those who didn’t know anything else by him, knew “Tennessee Stud” from the popular album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972). (Andrew, by the way, had no patience for the song. He found it intensely irritating that these country singers all seemed to love their guns and their horses more than anything or anyone else; much more, he said, than any woman.)
The whistles, interruptions, heehaws, and yells of “Tennessee Stud!” continued. Finally Doc Watson stopped playing and addressed the crowd in stern, admonitory tones.
“Since y’all seem to want it so much, I will play the song, but on one condition: you must keep completely quiet through the whole performance. Not one heehaw, d’you hear?”
Silenced, the callow youths nodded their heads dumbly, like chastened schoolboys. Having received the desired promise, Doc was as good as his word, and he and Merle gave the crowd a rousing rendition.
I was able to see Doc Watson three or four times more, twice in the late 1980s/early 1990s with Nikhil when he was little. The first time was in Memorial Hall in Wilmington, VT, the only venue on the tour that allowed children, and was Nikhil’s very first concert. In the intermission I asked Nikhil which songs he’d like Doc to play, and we took them up to the stage on a piece of paper. Someone must have read it out to Doc or else Nikhil’s favorites were Doc’s own, because he sang every single one of them, including, as I recall, Mama Don’t ‘Low No Musical Played Around Here. The second time was outdoors at the DeCordova Museum in Lincoln, Massachusetts, and was supposed to be Doc’s last concert before he retired. (Thankfully, he went on doing those “last concerts” for nearly 20 more years.) The line-up featured Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys, not long before Bill Monroe passed away, with Doc Watson singing no more than a handful of songs. I asked Nikhil which songs he would like Doc to sing if he could choose, and he replied, “He’s in the Jailhouse Now and The Last Thing on My Mind.” I’ll be darned if Doc didn’t sing both of them!
The last time I got to see Doc Watson in concert was in November, 2006 at the Calvin Theater in Northampton, Massachusetts. A living legend at 83 years old, he took us on a musical journey back to his roots and brought down the house. No one asked for “Tennessee Stud,” but he sang it for us anyway.
Rest In Peace, Doc Watson.