Doc Watson played all kinds of music to support his family living in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Although he owned an early 1950s Les Paul and Telecaster, Ralph Rinzler encouraged him to play an acoustic guitar, even though electrics were more versatile and easier to play. Begrudgingly, Doc borrowed an acoustic for [End Page 104]his first recording session with the folklorist. The folk revival was in full swing, and the folk market would not accept an electric guitar in the mix. Perhaps this was a blessing in disguise, as Doc followed Rinzler’s advice and switched— exclusively—to playing flat tops. Doc became one of the best, if not thebest, acoustic guitar pickers of all time.
Gustavson’s emotionally stirring biography follows Doc Watson from before he was born until just after he before he passed on at the age of 89. Using primarily a monochronemic methodology, the book starts early, describing Doc’s ancestry and his parents. When suitable, Gustavson breaks the time line to discuss pertinent tangents, which effectively helps couch Doc’s viewpoint or role within that specific offshoot. For instance, there is a chapter describing the folk music revival and how authenticity was stretched like a rubber band mostly because of the affected musical expectations of the Greenwich Village folk scene. There is another chapter about Doc’s guitars and how he was able to get incredible sounds out of any “dime store” acoustic. Although the information on his acoustic guitars is rich and interesting, readers may also wonder about his early electric guitar playing. Musicians and collectors would appreciate discovering if those vintage electric guitars are in good hands.
Early on, Doc thought that guitars were more of an accompaniment instrument for singing songs. He grew up singing with his family and continued singing his entire life, while at the same time turning his guitar into a powerful solo instrument. Doc’s vocal ability is as virtuosic as his guitar playing. He had a resonant baritone that reflected his Appalachian mountain heritage and did not use any vibrato in his vocal technique. Michelle Shocked eloquently described his voice as such: “I believe when Doc is singing a tune, he’s actually actively repenting. To repent is the one act that people don’t want to bring themselves to do; the humbling of one’s self-pride to repent and say, ‘I was wrong, I’ve made mistakes, I’ve erred, I’ve sinned.’ And I believe so firmly that Doc was working out his own salvation with every song” (p. 318).
Besides Gustavson’s in-depth portrayal of Doc’s association with Ralph Rinzler, the book also includes many other well-known musicians from a broad range of genres and generations, which could partly explain why it took six years to complete the book. Gustavson’s ethnographic research is commendable, and he documents compelling, supportive anecdotes from the likes of Ben Harper, Guy Clark, Maria Muldaur, Bela Fleck, Ricky Skaggs, and other major musicians.
Gustavson includes an important discussion of Doc’s son Merle in his book, showing how he played a large role in Doc’s life. Doc and Merle were always close. When Merle decided to play guitar and eventually tour with his father, they were inseparable for 20 years. Toward the end, Merle started disappearing for days, dealing with substance abuse and his own personal and musical identity. He crashed his blue tractor in a fatal accident. According to Gustavson, Doc never healed from the loss of his son, even into his eighties. Following Merle’s death, he founded a festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, called MerleFest, in Merle’s honor. Doc recounts that honoring his son’s legacy is related to his own decision to continue to play.
He relates how having a dream about pulling out of quicksand helped to inspire his own return to music. “Before the funeral I had a dream. I was in a desert-like place. It...