If you’re searching for the who’s who among bluegrass, Americana, folk, and traditional country musicians, MerleFest is a good place to start. The annual four-day festival kicks off today in Wilkesboro, just as it has every April for the past 25 years. Headlining artists include The Avett Brothers, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rhonda Vincent & The Rage, Jerry Douglas, Steep Canyon Rangers, Matraca Berg, and others. But this year for the first time, the festival will lack a performance from its founder, Doc Watson, who died May 29, 2012.
Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923, Doc Watson is celebrated nationally for inspiring a generation of folk musicians with his flat-picking guitar style and adaptation of traditional Appalachian songs. He founded MerleFest in 1988 to honor the memory of his son Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 at age 36. In addition to being his son, Merle Watson was also his father’s musical partner, a critically-acclaimed musician who recorded and toured across the country.
Doc Watson, who was blind, won the affection of thousands of musicians with his warm voice and story-filled performances. One of those musicians is David Holt, who first met Doc after a concert in 1972. Over the following decades, Holt and Watson collaborated together on several projects, including the album Legacy, in 2002, which won two Grammy awards for Best Traditional Folk Recording. Holt also worked with Merle Watson on the last record he made before he died. In the 1990’s, Holt and Doc began touring together.
“Playing with Doc was absolutely wonderful, and it was challenging,” says Holt. “You really had to be on your toes, because he’d rarely play a song the same way twice. He was probably the best rhythm guitar player I’ve ever played with.” Holt says that Doc was remembered for his impressive flat-picking guitar skills, but that he played rhythm just as well, if not better.
He also remembers Doc’s easy presence on stage. “He’d just talk to the audience like they were in his living room,” he says.
Holt has been to most of the 25 MerleFests. At the very first one, he is remembered for playing rhythm on a paper bag. Holt connected with Watson not only as a musician and a friend, but also because his own daughter died in a car accident in 1989, when she was a child. Because of that, MerleFest holds a special meaning for him. Last year, during Doc’s final MerleFest performance, Holt snapped a photograph of Watson on stage, from behind. Holt has taken hundreds of photos of Doc over the years, but that one stands out to him. It’s the very last one of Watson on stage. He died a month later.
This year, Holt’s band Sutton, Holt and Coleman is planning a special tribute to Watson on Saturday night. Other bands have similar plans. The festival, held on the ground of Wilkes Community College, is expected to draw around 80,000 participants. Here's a video of Watson and Holt playing together at MerleFest in 2008, when Watson was 84.
Even though Watson will not be there this year, “His spirit is underlying the whole thing,” says Holt. “As long as those people are around, his spirit lives on.”
- Listen to NPR's Fresh Air interview with Doc Watson from 1988.
- Watch a video of David Holt and Doc Watson playing together at Appalachian State in 1998, in which Watson tells David how he met his wife, Rosa Lee.
- Read Doc Watson's obituary in the New York Times.
- See a full line-up of bands for this year's MerleFest.