Yesterday, the world lost another great master: Doc Watson died at the age of 89. Earlier this year, I wrote this post about the loss of another legend, Earl Scruggs. Just as Earl Scruggs changed the world with his banjo picking, so did Doc Watson change the world with his guitar.
You may say you've never heard of Doc Watson, but his guitar techniques changed the worlds of country music and bluegrass--and perhaps all popular music. Before Doc Watson came along, the guitar was thought of as a back-up instrument. Before Doc Watson, you'd never see the lead musician in a group playing a guitar--the thought was just ridiculous!
I would guess that more people now know how to play the guitar than just about any other instrument. I wish I knew how to play the guitar.
But when Doc Watson was first playing the mountain music that would make him famous, the instrument to know would be the fiddle. He played with a group that had no fiddle player, and he could never master that particular instrument. So, he started playing the fiddle parts on his guitar. And the world would never be the same. He showed that the guitar was capable of complicated melodies. His flair with the flat pick inspired generations of guitarists.
I love these stories of artists coping with a situation that at its face would seem limiting, like not having a fiddle player at a time when gigs required the fiddle. I love these stories of artists exploding the boundaries of what's been done before, taking a liability and transforming it into a benefit.
Doc Watson was blind, but he did more than most sighted people will ever contemplate. He mastered instruments, he toured, he created a music festival, he remained committed to the old mountain music and hymns while exploring new music too. He supported younger generations of artists; one of my all-time favorite CDs is Michelle Shocked's Arkansas Traveler, which has the influence of Doc Watson braided through it (and in places, the actual playing of Doc Watson). I also love The Three Pickers, a CD which features Watson, Scruggs, and Ricky Skaggs. The Three Pickers and Arkansas Traveler have provided the soundtrack to many a road trip.
I love that Doc Watson continued to honor those that had gone before him, while being innovative. I love that he preserved an American heritage--Appalachian music--that so many of us have come to value. I love that he supported younger artists. I love that he never forgot his roots, but that he didn't let those roots hem him in.
He died at 89, so at least he had a good, long life. Still, how quickly it seems that these great ones are leaving us: Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm, Doc Watson . . . and that's only the musicians that come to mind. Many of the artists who have meant so much to me will not be far behind, but I shall continue to wish for them a long life, well into their late old age, with ever-increasing mental acuity and a physical body that holds together.
In fact, I wish that for us all, along with a life's journey where we transform obstacles into opportunities, where we continue to treasure what has nourished us, a life that stretches us without breaking us and a world transformed by our creativity!
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