Doc Watson – no strings attached

Doc Watson is my favorite acoustic guitar player.  He is a hero to me for the amount of talent he has in his voice and hands, and for the way he conducts himself on stage.  Always with dignity, humor and enough integrity to weigh down a jumbo Gallagher guitar case.  When tickets became available for his Ryman Auditorium show July 28, 2011, I jumped at the chance to see him perform and ordered immediately.

Doc first came into my consciousness when I was in a college bluegrass band in the 1970s.  We called ourselves The Eighth of January, after the fiddle tune that eventually became
the popular song The Battle of New Orleans.  The boys and I were “just eat up” with learning and playing as much acoustic music as possible.  Doc was high on our list of people to emulate.

The summer after my freshman year at Ole Miss, a wondrous announcement was made: The Atwood Bluegrass Festival in Monticello, Mississippi would bring Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass and Doc Watson to perform.  The Eighth of January developed a plan of action in short order.  Our fiddler Steve Cook of Clinton and banjo player S. Cragin Knox of Jackson would drive south, while I would mount the Southern Campaign and head north from Pascagoula to converge on this monumental event in force.

Lester Flatt & The Nashville Grass, with then teenage mandolin player Marty Stuart, wowed the crowd.  I was thrilled that Lester tipped his hat to me through the window of
his bus while he waited to be introduced.  Steve got fiddler Paul Warren to sign his souvenir program.  Warren had played with Flatt & Earl Scruggs and stayed with Lester after their breakup. “Thank ye kindly, neighbors,” Lester told the audience.  “You’re
welcome,” we applauded.

Jamming at bluegrass festivals brings pickers together for the length of a song and sometimes for much longer.  The day of Doc Watson’s performance, Knox, Steve and I made the acquaintance of Carl Nobles, a guitar player from Hazlehurst.  He sat in with us and we’ve all been friends ever since.  A long-haired mandolin player from Vicksburg also played with us that day and I haven’t seen him since.

L to R: S. Cragin Knox, Steve Cook, Kenny Boone, Carl Nobles, Les Kerr

While we were jamming, John Stennis, Jr., then a state legislator, walked by and asked if we wanted to play on the big stage.  It took us less than a claw hammer banjo lick to say “yes!”  Because we were unscheduled, we were the last local band to perform before the stage was cleared and set for Doc.  For several years afterwards, I bragged about “opening” for Doc Watson in Monticello.

Five years later I saw Doc again at the Sand Hills Bluegrass Festival in Marianna, Florida.  I had earned a journalism degree and was a young radio station news director in Mobile, Alabama.  When I heard that Doc would be that close to Mobile, I made plans to attend.

Because of my job, I would get to participate in a “sit down” with Doc Watson and the local media, some of whom also played guitar.  Talk about another dream come true!

L to R: Festival organizer Danny Lipford, Doc Watson, Les Kerr, Mark R. Kent, Mike Lipford

Doc was as gentlemanly and forthright as we could have imagined.  “You’d be surprised at how little I pick at home,” he said when we guitar-playing newsmen asked how often he practiced.

We asked about his signature guitar made by J.W. Gallagher in Wartrace, Tennessee and learned that, “Well, he just brought one along and said he’d like for me to play it.  Said ‘the only strings attached are the ones that’s on it,’ and I’ve been playing it ever since.”

Doc talked about his pre-acoustic years playing country and rockabilly dance music.  “Yeah, I had one o’ them gear-shifter tail pieces on an electric guitar that could really make
it whine.”

He said he enjoyed listening to the night programming of Nashville’s WSM AM, the home station of the Grand Ole Opry, and New Orleans’ WWL AM, that broadcast country music for truckers at night then, and a local FM country station near his home in North Carolina.  “Who knows, maybe the popular music we hear now will be considered folk music sometime in the future.”

Since then, I’ve seen Doc perform at many times at places like the Station Inn and the Ryman Auditorium and each time, as a picker and as a person, I have felt honored to be in his presence.

Text copyright 2011. Photos from the collection of Les Kerr

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About Les Kerr

Les Kerr is a songwriter, recording artist, journalist and author originally from the Gulf Coast now based in Nashville, Tennessee. Learn More about Les at
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4 Responses to Doc Watson – no strings attached

  1. tommypeggy says:

    That great reading Les……. I have my ticket ( had it since the printed them too) I think the ink was still wet when I got my ticket so early and fast.
    I have only seen Doc on film or TV and of course recordings but now I finally get to see him in person and in my fav music haunt The Ryman Auditorium to boot. Maybe I’ll see ya there? Tommy

  2. Les Kerr says:

    Thanks, Tommy. I’ll keep an eye out for you.

  3. Gary Brewer says:

    Great story. I’m a backporch bluegrass guitar picker and Mr. Watson was and is my favorite guitar player. What a gentleman.

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