© 2023 NPR Illinois
The Capital's NPR News Station
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00
0:00
Available On Air Stations
HIRING! Help fund the NPR Illinois mission to inform the community by securing business sponsorships.

'Fresh Air' celebrates the centennial of legendary bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross. Our show today is dedicated to Doc Watson, who was one of America's most revered folk musicians. He was born 100 years ago today. He died in 2012. In his prime, Doc Watson was considered the finest flatpicker in the U.S. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who discovered him, was quoted in Watson's New York Times obit as saying, quote, "Watson is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking guitar performance. His flatpicking style has no precedent in earlier country music," unquote.

Watson was born in North Carolina's Blue Ridge Mountains. When he was about 1 year old, an eye infection left him blind. As an adult musician, for about 15 years, he toured and performed with his son, Merle. In 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Doc Watson organized an annual music festival in North Carolina in his honor, known as MerleFest. We're going to hear the interview Terry recorded with Doc Watson in 1988. But we're going to start with a couple of songs from the concert he recorded on FRESH AIR in 1989. He brought with him guitarist Jack Lawrence, who was his longtime music partner.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

TERRY GROSS: I want to welcome both of you to FRESH AIR. And, Doc Watson, can I ask you to introduce the first song?

DOC WATSON: Thank you, Terry. I think we'll do one that Merle and I - my son Merle and I learned from John Hurt, a good old tune called "Make Me Down A Pallet On Your Floor."

(Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down? Make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know. I'm going up the country through that sleet and snow, going up the country through that sleet and snow. Yes, I'm going up the country through that sleet and snow. Ain't no telling just how far I'll go. Get my breakfast here and my dinner in Tennessee, get breakfast here and dinner in Tennessee, going to get my breakfast here, my dinner in Tennessee. Told you I was coming, so you better look for me. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down? Make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

What do you think about it, Jack?

DOC WATSON AND JACK LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Yeah, I like that notion right there.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Well, you know that I can't lay down on your bed. Now, honey, I can't lay down on your bed. No, baby, can't lay down cross that pretty bed 'cause my good woman, she might kill me dead. And don't you let my good gal catch you here. Hey, don't you let my good gal catch you here. If you do, she may shoot you. She might cut and stump you, too. Ain't no telling what that gal might do. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down? Make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) The way I've been sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. The way I've been sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. Yeah. The way I've been sleeping, my back and shoulder's tired. I think I'll turn to try sleeping on my side. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, won't you make it down? Make it soft and low. And then maybe my good gal, she won't know.

Let's play some country counterpoints.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Make me down a pallet on your floor. Make me down a pallet on your floor. Honey, make it over, close behind that door. Make it where your good man will never go.

JACK LAWRENCE: All right.

WATSON: Guitar straps will squeak, Jack. That's the way - that's the way - that's the way it works. Here's a little tune about an old boy that - excuse me - that decided he's going to leave home and learn to travel. And he found a pretty little girl and got married and got two for the price of one. And I let the song tell you the rest of the tale. It's called "Give Me Back My 15 Cents."

(Singing) I left my home in Tennessee, and I thought I'd learn to travel. But then I met with a pretty little gal, and soon we played the devil. I loved that gal, and she loved me, and I thought we'd live together. But then we tied that fatal knot, and now I'm gone forever. Give me back my 15 cents. Give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

Yeah. Let me hear your opinion.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Sooey (imitating pig snort).

(Singing) Twas 15 cents to the preacher man and a dollar for the paper. Then dear old mother-in-law moved in and, lordy, what a caper. I fiddled a tune for her one day, and she called me a joker. Then the little old sow got mad at me and hit me with the poker. Give me back my 15 cents, give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to Mammy.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) I worked in town and I worked on the farm, but there was no way to suit them. They're both so dad-burned mean to me. Somebody ought to shoot them. I'm tired of looking at my mother-in-law. I'd like to see my granny. Going to leave the state of Arkansas and go back home to Mammy. Give me back my 15 cents Give me back my money. Give me back my 15 cents, and I'll go home to Mammy. Yeah.

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson singing and playing guitar, along with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in our studio in 1989. Today would have been Doc Watson's 100th birthday. We'll hear more of his FRESH AIR concert later. The year before that concert, Watson joined Terry for an interview. She asked him about how being blind affected his life.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: I've read you say that if you weren't blind, you don't think you would have ever gone on the road, and I wasn't sure how to interpret that.

WATSON: I wouldn't have because of exactly what I was talking about. I would rather have a job where I could go home at night. I would have played music, of course. There's no doubt about that. Because I think you're born with music or whatever talent that comes out front in your blood, as the old-timers used to say, and you just couldn't help but pick the first time a guitar came along. You'd learn it. But it would have been a hobby. I'd like to have been a carpenter or an electrician or something kind of work like that, or a mechanic, if I could see. I can do rough carpenter work anyway.

GROSS: Didn't your father make the first banjo that you played?

WATSON: Yeah, he did. That was in the summer of 1934 - made my first little stringed instrument. I had a harmonica before that. But Dad showed me a few of the old time frailing or clawhammer banjo-style tunes. And one day he brought it to me and put it in my hands and said, son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. Some of these days, we'll get you a better one. He said, might help you get through the world.

GROSS: And what was it like for you the first time you got the banjo into your hands? What did you do with it?

WATSON: I don't - you know, I really don't remember. I remember how I felt, but I don't remember hardly what it was like learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for Dad to show me because I couldn't see his hands. And it was a little tough. But he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how to note the thing. And I could figure out where the notes were 'cause it was fretless, and you could slide along with your fingers, and finally you'd come to the right one, you know? And you found out how to get there without missing them.

GROSS: So you were really pretty self-taught.

WATSON: For the most part, yes, I was. The guitar - absolutely, I was self-taught.

GROSS: How did you get your first guitar?

WATSON: By pulling the crosscut saw. One spring, my dad told my youngest brother and I, boys, if you'll cut all those dead chestnut - small dead chestnuts down along the road and around the edge of the field there, you can sell it for pulpwood to the tannery. And we went at it, and we cut a couple of big truckloads. And it didn't make us a mint of money, but it made me enough to buy me a good little guitar from - well, I thought it was good at the time - from Sears Roebuck. And my younger brother ordered him a suit of clothes.

(LAUGHTER)

GROSS: Now, considering that your early instruments were homemade banjos and a mail-order guitar, did you ever get really obsessed with the quality of instruments that you were playing? Some musicians just play what they have, and others get really obsessed with having instruments that are just right for them or custom-made for them.

WATSON: I was fairly contented with what I had. I never had had my hands on a good guitar back in those days and didn't for years. The first good guitar that I got hold of that I would have considered much better than my mail-order box was a Martin guitar that - Richard Green (ph) used to have a little music store under his - he had a boarding house or an inn there in Boone. And I went in there one day with that little mail-order thing and he said, why don't you let me help you get you a good guitar? And I said, gosh, it costs too much. And he said, I'll tell you what I can do. I can get you a good Martin D-18 that will be a price that you can afford, and I'll take the payments down to $5 a month.

And I couldn't beat that. I paid it off quicker than that, but I couldn't beat that with a stick. And at that time I was playing at the little fruit stand and a couple of - a little bean market they had in Boone and making me a few shekels on Saturday, having a good time of picking. And I paid for the guitar that summer. He got me that thing at his cost, and it cost 90 bucks, and I paid for it. Oh, Lord, I was proud of that guitar. But in all truth, compared to my guitar now, it was like fretting a fence.

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATSON: (Laughter) It was really hard to play.

GROSS: (Laughter) Well, I guess it's almost good in a way to get used to something like that because it makes it seem so much easier when you get a good guitar.

WATSON: Oh, it really does. And when I got into the folk revival in the '60s, I ran into people who could set a guitar action out to where you could play it. And I came on to another Martin along about that time - played a Gibson first on the road, borrowed, and then I came in to another Martin, and the action was brought down to where you could play it.

BIANCULLI: We're listening to Terry's 1988 interview with Doc Watson. Today is the centennial of his birth. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOC WATSON'S "DOC'S GUITAR")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're paying tribute to the revered folk guitarist and singer Doc Watson, who would have been 100 years old today. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: It was really during the folk revival that you started to become nationally known. I think you'd been playing dances and, you know, playing in your area.

WATSON: I played rockabilly music through the '50s. And I played an electric guitar, a Les Paul.

GROSS: Well, see, this really interests me. You were playing rockabilly and an electric guitar...

WATSON: Mmm hmm, rockabilly and old pop standards with an old boy named Jack Williams. Jack had a little group together, and when he heard me pick, he said, buddy, I want you to pick with me.

GROSS: (Laughter) Now, the way I understand it, Ralph Rinzler, who was working at the Smithsonian Institute, came down looking for traditional Southern musicians, came down your way and heard about you.

WATSON: He was looking for Clarence Ashley and found him - Clarence Tom Ashley. And I had played music with Tom on a few land sales and a few little shows here and there. And Ralph came over and when he heard me, he persuaded me over my better judgment at the time that I had something to offer in the way of entertainment in the folk revival. So I jumped in there with both hands, I reckon, thinking, well, if I fail at it, it won't mean I didn't try. So I'm here. And Ralph was a member of the Greenbriar Boys at the time.

GROSS: Now, you had been playing, you know, electric guitar. Did you have to switch over to acoustic in order to make it in the folk revival?

WATSON: Yeah, I switched back to the acoustic. Oh, yeah. Yeah. Oh, Lord, if you'd took an electric guitar on the stage...

GROSS: (Laughter).

WATSON: ...On some of those festivals, they would have booed you off the stage if you were supposed to be - they used to call me ethnic until they found out I knew a few other tunes other than the old hand-me-downs - you know, the ballads and the good old tunes that I cut my teeth on. I think I really shocked some people in some of the clubs when I got my foot in the door. Well, Ralph says, now, when you get your foot in the door, you can expand out and play a little of the other music that you've played over the years, but stick strictly to traditional music, the good old ethnic stuff, till you get started. So that's what I did. I kind of deceived people a little, you know? (Laughter).

GROSS: Well, I want to play something that was recorded by Ralph Rinzler - I mean, Ralph Rinzler recorded it. You're performing (laughter).

WATSON: In my living room. In my living room, yeah.

GROSS: And this is a recording - it was from the early 1960s. And this is "Everyday Dirt." Tell us a little bit about the song before we hear this.

WATSON: A fellow, David McCarn, was living in a mill town, Gastonia, N.C. And he heard about some recording sessions going on down - I think it was Knoxville, Tenn. And he probably slung his guitar over his back, knowing how those poor old boys fared. He and a fellow, Howard - I've forgotten his given name - went over to Knoxville and recorded a bunch of things. And "Everyday Dirt" was one of the songs that happened in our little record collection when I was a little boy. And those words are just - you know, they're automatic. I don't even have to think about the lyrics on that. I did have to work at picking it. And I learned it off the old 78 record that McCarn recorded.

GROSS: OK, so from the early 1960s, this is my guest, Doc Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "EVERYDAY DIRT")

WATSON: (Singing) Now, John come home all in a wonder, rattled at the door, just like thunder. Who is that, Mr. Hendley cried. 'Tis my husband. You must hide. Then John sat down by the fireside weeping and up that chimney he got to peeping. There he saw that poor old soul sitting a-straddle of the pot-rack pole. Then John built on a rousing fire just to suit his own desire. His wife called out with a free good will, don't do that, for the man you'll kill. Then John reached up and down he fetched him, like a (inaudible) when a dog had catched him. He blacked his eyes and then did better - kicked him out right on his setter. Then his wife, she crawled in under the bed, and he pulled her out by the hair of the head. And when I'm gone, remember then. He kicked where the chinches had been.

GROSS: Recorded in the early 1960s, that's my guest Doc Watson. How did you learn how to pick that way? We found out that you were self-taught, but it seems like it would be really hard to teach yourself an intricate style like that.

WATSON: Well, by listening to the old records, you could hear - after you got familiarized with the instrument, you could hear what strings they were hitting on and what chord they were playing in just by the sound. After all, music is sound. And I think if anybody learns the guitar properly, they shouldn't - as soon as they can get to where they can, stop looking at the neck and play without doing that, unless it's something really hard that you're first getting into. You know, you need to memorize the distances and the jumps on the neck. Well, as I said, music is sound, and I could tell what the guy was doing, the little slide licks on there where he goes down to the - a certain note and then jumps back up there. All the chords are sound. I mean, it's like you reading something, once I was familiar with the guitar.

GROSS: Once you put down the electric guitar for the acoustic guitar, how often did you pick up the electric guitar again?

WATSON: Very seldom. After I got into folk music and into the revival and began to play little jobs at coffeehouses, I don't - I seldom, if ever, picked up the electric guitar.

GROSS: Do you miss it at all?

WATSON: No, not - I love a good electric guitar. That one wasn't all that good. It was a second, actually. It was a Les Paul Gibson. But it really was a second. The neck on it wasn't all that good. I thought it was a great thing when I first got hold of it. It had a beautiful sound. But there are some that are so much better now than it was, soundwise, you know, as - to play that occasionally - I picked up a Chet Atkins model electric Gibson the other day - beautiful hollow body. Oh, Lord, now, I was interested in that thing.

GROSS: (Laughter).

BIANCULLI: Doc Watson recorded in 1988. We'll hear more of his interview with Terry Gross and his 1989 FRESH AIR concert after a break. Here's a song from that performance. Today is the centennial of Watson's birth. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATSON: I'd like to do a little tune here that I used to hear Brownie and Sonny do. It's a blues that everybody's had at one time or another. It's called "Stranger Blues." Two, three, four. (Playing guitar, singing) Well, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. Yes, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. And just because I'm a stranger, you don't have to dog me 'round. Well, sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Sometimes I wonder why some people treat a stranger so. Can't find a place to stay. I just go from door to door. Well, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town. Yes, I'm a stranger here. I just blowed in your town.

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, in for Terry Gross. Our show today is dedicated to Doc Watson, the revered folk guitarist and singer who died in 2012. Today would have been his 100th birthday. Watson grew up in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina and, in his prime, was considered the greatest guitar flatpicker. Let's get back to the concert he recorded in our studio in 1989 with guitarist Jack Lawrence.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

WATSON: (Playing guitar) When the late Jimmie Rodgers did his last sessions in the early '30s, he did some music that sat right on the edge of the big band music of that day. Well, here's a pretty, little tune old Jim recorded called "Blue-Eyed Jane" (ph).

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) The sweetest girl in the world lives in my hometown. We fell in love like turtledoves while the moon was shining down. I asked her then - I asked her when the wedding bells would ring. And she said, oh, dear, it seems so strange for this to happen here. She is my sugar pal. Oh, to me, she is the sweetest gal. I love her so, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, she meets me in the lane, my blue-eyed Jane.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: Play it pretty, Jack.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) Listen here, Janie dear, I've come to say farewell. Sweetheart, you know I love you so, much more than there's words to tell. But I must go away today. Honey, won't you come with me? 'Cause I'm going to be blue missing you, longing every day for you. My blue-eyed Jane, oh, to me, you are the sweetest thing. I love you so, my blue-eyed Jane. And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, please meet me in the lane, my blue-eyed Jane.

WATSON AND LAWRENCE: (Playing guitar).

WATSON: (Singing) And when the sun goes down and the shadow's creeping over town, then I'll come home to you, my blue-eyed Jane.

BIANCULLI: That's guitarist and singer Doc Watson and guitarist Jack Lawrence recorded in our studio in 1989. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with Doc Watson.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: Once you went on the road during the folk revival - now you weren't used to traveling. There must have been a lot you learned - had to learn how to do. Did you have a business manager to help you out with bookings and...

WATSON: Ralph Rinzler did the bookings between he and Manny Greenhill of Folklore Productions. But Ralph traveled a lot with me, and if he didn't - and when I would go to New York to work in the city, I came by Trailways bus - someone would always meet me at the Port Authority and take me over to Ralph's apartment. I worked - lots of times, I'd work at Gerde's Folk City a week or two weeks at a time doing either opening act or just playing the job straight there. It was scary. I was as green as a green apple as far as the city - country boy, you know, really...

GROSS: Oh, yeah, sure.

WATSON: As the old timers used to say, a hayseed, for sure. But the scary part finally, and the adventure finally, got over with. And that road - well, it became a job (laughter).

GROSS: Yeah, I see what you mean.

WATSON: The music, a good audience, I love.

GROSS: You know, I think there's always clubs who - not - maybe not many, but there's always some clubs willing to take advantage of a performer. And I would guess that someone who was blind was a more likely target if they didn't have people who were watching out for them. Would you ever have any problems with them?

WATSON: I was sure was glad when my son, Merle, started on the road with me because if we went to a place and they didn't treat me too good - Dad, we won't come back here anymore. And that was the end of it. I'd tell Manny, I'd tell Mr. Greenhill, don't book that anymore. That was the end of it. We - you know, we didn't hit too many places that they weren't really decent to us. But once in a great while there - of course, I won't call any names because we're on nationwide radio.

(LAUGHTER)

WATSON: But we were in a few places where they treated you like pieces of used equipment. And that was the end of playing there. We just didn't do it again. That's the best thing you can do, you know, is not tolerate that. Just move away.

GROSS: You mentioned your son, Merle. Did you teach him how to play guitar?

WATSON: No. Merle didn't show any interest in the guitar until he was 15. I was on my first concert tour, this little solo concert tour, that spring. And about middle ways of it, Ralph called me and said, Doc, I've got some good news. And I said, well, lay it on me. And he said, Merle has started playing the guitar. His mother, Rosa Lee, started him on the guitar. She taught him his first chords and showed him how to play them and a little bit about timing. And he just took it and went with it.

And we met John Hurt for the first time - that same summer, we went to the Berkeley Folk Festival. And Merle played backup guitar for me. He'd only been playing about three months. And he played backup guitar on the stage. And we met - when we met John Hurt, Merle was enthralled by John's finger style on the guitar. And he took that and added a few little notions of his own. And that's where Merle's picking style, finger style, came from.

GROSS: So he never felt that he had to work hard to differentiate his style from your style.

WATSON: Oh, Merle, he - once in a while, he'd asked me for some pointers on a melody to a song or something, but Merle played his very own thing on the guitar. I don't think he even ever asked me how to hold the pick. He probably looked at the way I held it. But I never really sat down and taught him how you get this note or that note. I just played a song and sang it, and he jumped in there and learned the lead to it, like "Summertime," for instance. I had heard a version of that. And I said, Merle, what do you think about learning this? And I played the thing about halfway through, and he said, gosh, I don't know. That sounds like it'd be hard. And so help me, in five minutes, he could play the lead to it.

And when we did the recording - I'll say this about it, and then we'll move on - when we did the recording, the producer, Jack Clement, came running through and said, boys, don't touch it. It was the first take. He says, that one's the way it should be. And Merle said, well, it was spontaneous. He said, Dad, I'll have to go back and memorize what I did. Those things happen in the studio a lot of the time, you know? After you learn a song, you'll hear notes that you just reach for, and they're there. And you play things that you hadn't played before.

GROSS: I've noticed with a lot of musicians that they meet all these people who have memorized their licks, and they have no idea what they played (laughter). They were just being spontaneous, and everybody else goes and memorizes it. When your son Merle died, was it hard for you to go back on the road afterwards?

WATSON: If you'll pardon a little intimacy here, I'll tell you something that happened or I wouldn't have. Between the time he was killed and his funeral, I dreamed I was in a dark desert. And it was so hot, you couldn't breathe. And the sand was pulling me down like if you were in quicksand. And that big, strong hand reached back and said, come on, Dad; you can make it. And he brought me - led me out to where it was cool, but there was a - sunny, but there was a cool breeze. And I waked up, and I thought, well, I'll try.

And I took up the last job on that particular tour that we'd cancelled. And my friend Jack Lawrence had been working some while Merle was off the road with us for quite a while, and Jack stayed on as the other guitarist. And I'm kind of glad I did. If I had stayed off the road a month, I never would have come back. It was so hard, you - well, no, you couldn't know, Terry. But it was really hard to go back out there without him.

GROSS: But I guess that dream kind of gave you permission, in a way, to do it.

WATSON: I believe it was God saying it, I think, the dream was.

BIANCULLI: We're listening back to Terry's 1988 interview with Doc Watson. Today would have been his 100th birthday. We'll hear more of his FRESH AIR interview and concert after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOC WATSON SONG, "THAT WAS THE LAST THING ON MY MIND")

BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. We're paying tribute to folk guitarist and singer Doc Watson, who was born 100 years ago today. Let's get back to Terry's 1988 interview with him.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

GROSS: You know, we've been - I've been using the word virtuoso today. And I would guess that one of the problems of being a virtuoso is that people want to hear you play fast all the time, to hear you really, you know, do the most difficult stuff that you can do.

WATSON: Well, yeah, a lot of people do get into that. But usually, if you have a big audience, you can't really take requests from the - when you're on stage. So you just program your set, and you season it with enough of that to keep the people who love the flashy thing satisfied and kind of do a sensible set. I don't mind it if people like to hear the flat picking, and that does give you a boost, to get a lot of yells and whistles and screams from the audience, you know? But I love the good solid music, too. And most of the audience do, really. They - when it comes right down to it, they like to hear you - the whole scope of the thing. Being accused of being a virtuoso doesn't bother me as bad as people trying to put me on a pedestal, especially when they're my own age.

GROSS: What do you mean by putting you on a pedestal?

WATSON: Well, they act like you're a god or something, you know? Lord, I'm just people like everybody else. I do play the guitar, but I had to work awful hard at it to learn what I know.

GROSS: Can I ask you a question that I hope you don't mind me asking? And if you do, don't answer it. A lot of performers who are blind wear dark glasses when they perform. And that's something you've never done.

WATSON: I don't know why. I always hated - used to - I had a good bit of light perception. Doesn't bother me now because most of it's gone - but the reflection off sunglasses, you know, how it'll come in on the sides? I guess they make them now, it won't do it. But, boy, they used to try to get me to wear them. I reckon they didn't like the way my eyes looked. A lot of people'd say, you ought to wear sunglasses. I hated them. I wouldn't do it. And I just never have worn them. I don't know if the blind that wear them, their eyes look really abnormal or what. I don't know. I never did care to wear them - just didn't do it right.

GROSS: Right.

WATSON: No particular reason except what I told you.

GROSS: One last thing. You know, there's a really nice recording from the early '60s of you and your wife singing together. Does she still sing? Do you ever sing together?

WATSON: She doesn't sing anymore or play anymore. The tragedy of losing Merle, Terry, has just about undone her. She does the the office work there at home. But she's not Rosa Lee anymore. Bless her little heart. She - I don't know. Sometimes I just want to cry, and, you know - especially when I'm away from her - I do, when I think about it. I try not to and try to encourage her, what I can. It's a tough - it's been tough on her, and she can't seem to get over the loss. The grief really has her yet.

GROSS: Yeah, I can understand. But - oh, I regret we're out of time. I want to thank you so much for coming, for talking with us about music. And thank you very much.

WATSON: I'll guarantee you, it's been a pleasure. Do you know, I kind of think a good ol' train song might be in order right here. Son, I remember that song over there that brother Jimmy Jett wrote. And I'm going to plug an album right here. Ain't supposed to do this, but it's on an album I did for Sugar Hill called "Riding The Midnight Train" - a bluegrass album - my first endeavor on pure bluegrass. "Greenville Trestle" is a song for the train buffs that love the good ol' steam engine sounds and all that good - I remember when I went to school at Raleigh, there was a train went by every 20 minutes on an average. And this song makes me think of those days.

(Singing) I remember as a boy how in wonderment and joy I'd watch the trains as they'd go by. And the whistle's lonesome sound you could hear for miles around as they rolled across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. Pick it, son.

On the riverbank I'd stand with my cane pole in my hand and watch the freight trains up against the sky. With black smoke trailing back as they moved along the track that runs across that Greenville Trestle High. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

When the lonesome whistles whine, I get rambling on my mind. Lord, I wish they still sounded that way. As I turn to head for home, Lord, she'd rumble low and long toward the sunset at the close of day. But the whistles don't sound like they used to. Lately not many trains go by. Hard times across this land mean no work for a railroad man. And the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high. No, the Greenville Trestle now don't seem so high.

BIANCULLI: Guitarist and singer Doc Watson, along with guitarist Jack Lawrence, recorded in the FRESH AIR studio in 1989. Today would have been Watson's 100th birthday. A forthcoming tribute album titled "I Am A Pilgrim: Doc Watson At 100" is scheduled to be released April 28. Here's the title track from it, featuring Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "I AM A PILGRIM")

ROSANNE CASH: (Singing) I am a pilgrim and a stranger traveling through this wearisome land. I've got a home in that yonder city, good Lord. And it's not, not made by hand. I've got a mother, my sister and brother, who have gone this, this way before. And I am determined to go and see them, good Lord, for they're on that other shore.

BIANCULLI: Coming up, John Powers reviews Season 2 of the HBO drama series "Perry Mason." This is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF BRAD MEHLDAU'S "BLACKBIRD") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.
Related Stories