The Doc’s in the Dawghouse: An Interview With Doc Watson and David Grisman
On Wednesday, April 14, David Grisman and Arthel “Doc” Watson played an acoustic concert at the Germantown Performing Arts Center in Germantown, Tennessee. They were joined by friend and fellow musician Jackson Lawrence. The GPAC, as the venue is known, is well renowned for both its excellent acoustics and its staff’s dedication to preserving music and other forms of expressive art. Located just outside of Memphis, the GPAC had hosted the likes of YoYo Ma and touring Broadway shows, just to name a few. On this night, the atmosphere was both relaxed and upbeat. Doc’s work on acoustic guitar in his lifetime has placed him among the legends of bluegrass, but his influences cover gospel, jazz, country, and folk as well. The Watson family even holds a folk music festival in North Carolina each year in memory of Doc’s late son, Merle. Grisman is probably best known for his prowess on the mandolin, but has most recently made a mark on the music industry through the success of his record label, Acoustic Disc. Both men are the deans of modern folk music, taking the initial influence of men like Bill Monroe and expanding on it through their own unique picking styles. Jackson Lawrence jammed with them on the original sessions that would later be released as an album.
The theme for this night was “arrangements while you wait.” The three men played with no particular setlist. In between songs they tuned instruments and would say something like, “ you remember that song we heard on the radio this afternoon? Let’s do that.” Doc and Dawg displayed their versatility as they seamlessly mixed tunes from their album with traditional folk songs on the spot. Their efforts were well appreciated by the crowd, many of whom were season ticket holders at the GPAC and previously unfamiliar with the music. The trio received a standing ovation at the end of the night for a concert well played. I had the opportunity to talk with Doc and “Dawg” as David Grisman is nicknamed, before the show. Excerpts from that interview follow.
G: I’m gonna try and get back to my roots tonight.
D: Yeah, make that a few of them!
C: That sounds like a plan. How did this tour come about with just the two of you?
G: We’ve been doing some gigs for the past couple of years. Whenever I can get down to see Doc, he invites me to come down and jam with him. It’s something we’ve been doing for a long time. Since we put out a CD together, it was logical for us to do a few gigs. It’s always a lot of fun for me.
C: You recorded those sessions for the album from 1987-91, but didn’t release them on Acoustic Disc until 1997. Was there any reason for the time lapse in between?
G: Most of those tapes weren’t intended to be released for a particular album. They were really just jam sessions. On a couple of cuts I asked Doc to do some duets with me for a project we still haven’t released. I built my own studio around 1990. Doc and Jack came over for dinner a few times. Jack was working on a project, so Doc asked if I’d do a recording with Jack. We cut some tunes and jammed on some others. The next year the guys came back.
D: I remember we drank a lot of wine.
G: (laughs) Yeah, I got them all drunk. They came over for dinner and we recorded some tracks for a different album, “Home is Where the Heart Is.” I always like to record a lot of tunes, especially with a guy like Doc who doesn’t require many takes. Most of the things we recorded in my basement were just one take, but they were really inspired. At some point I made a tape of all the stuff we recorded and we had 16 or 17 tunes. I made Doc a tape and it sounded good enough to him, so we put it out.
C: When people take about Doc’s guitar playing they frequently use the phrase “flattop guitar picking.” Is that a self-defining phrase that’s different from more straightforward guitar techniques?
D: No, I’ve let that question hang fifty times. I could illustrate it if someone was watching, but doubt I could give you a description. I just know you hold the flatpick the right way and attack the strings with just a slight hold on the pick if you want to pick softly. [Doc changes the angle of his pick] You grip it and attack the strings to make it a little bit louder. I can tell you how to practice on it, but the style would take an expert to describe.
G: Doc’s got a lot of styles, I think. He plays a lot of traditional guitar styles and he’s innovated a lot. He’s been part of the development of a bunch of different guitar styles.
D: Sometimes people ask me if I planned the development of my style and I say, “no, it just happened.”
G: I think a lot of these terms like flatpicking tend to be over-generalized and mean different things to too many people. When it all boils down, artists and musicians deal in specific areas. They don’t consider themselves flatpickers. Basically a guitar is played with either the fingers or a plectrum.
D: A plectrum is the flatpick. The flatpick is the instrument you use to play the guitar with. There is no particular flatpick style in my book, there are a lot of them.
G: There are so many styles, American and beyond. The truth is that in this day and age with such amazing access to the whole world of music, there is better access to old recordings. You can get the complete recordings of Jimmy Rogers on a 10 CD set. When I got interested in his music, you had to find somebody with old records. There has been so much music developed in this century. Now people all over the world have access to hearing it and studying it. There’s this amazing cross-fertilization. It’s not uncommon to find jazz musicians who are familiar and interested in Bluegrass and folk music. Putting all these general terms on styles of music is oversimplifying it to the point of meaninglessness.
There are thousands of styles that employ the flatpick. There are certain ways Doc plays, certain ways Tony Rice plays….In a way we’re musicians, so when you head into our turf, then we talk specifics. There are books on Doc, books on Clarence White, and books on Django Reinhardt. Once you get below the surface, there’s a huge world in there.
C: (to Grisman) I know you grew up with Ralph Rinzler in New Jersey. After he founded Smithsonian’s office of folk life programs how did that help the development of folk music in America and beyond?
G: Ralph was a real visionary and amazing guy.
D: Ralph caused me to get into the folk revival. He was absolutely responsible for it.
G: I wouldn’t know Doc if it weren’t for Ralph.
D: At the time I was playing with a local country-swing-rockabilly group, sort of a crossbreed thing. In 1960 Ralph came down and heard me play some of the old-timey things. He persuaded me against my better judgment that I had something to offer in the folk music revival. So, I went to work again on the old flattop guitar, the good old acoustic box – and it hurt my fingers (laughs). I played strictly the ethnic music of the area for a few trips during the early dues-payin’. One day Ralph said, “Doc once you get your foot in the door in this business you can expand and play some of the other things.” That’s exactly what David was talking about a minute ago. I don’t play jazz as such, but I play a few of the tunes that are jazz, but they’re country versions of it.
To answer your question, Ralph was responsible for one helluva lot of people getting into the folk festival circuit on the college campuses.
G: When he took over direction of the Smithsonian’s folk life division, he kind of continued doing the same thing on a grander scale. He engineered the purchase of Folkways records for the Smithsonian. He recognized that that was an incredible resource that should be preserved. Basically, the work that he did on a government level would probably have ramifications for whole generations to come. He was really concerned about preserving the culture.
D: Ralph had music on tape that I’d forgotten he’d recorded with different people. For instance, he did the folk music of the Watson family album and when he got the Smithsonian people to purchase Folkways, he extended that album when it came out on CD. It’s almost twice as long.
G: Right, same with “Old Time Music” of Clarence Ashley.
D: He was a storehouse of good old-time music tunes.
C: He played the banjo too, right?
G: Yeah, he played the banjo and primarily the mandolin. He came into my Jr. high English class, which was taught by his cousin, Elsie. Three of us misfits back then asked her if we could have a folk music club because we were interested in folk music via the Kingston Trio. She said, “Oh, I have this cousin Ralph who is a professional folk musician.” He showed up in the English class with his mandolin and banjo. He gave a lecture and demonstration and that changed my life. We started bothering him and going over to his house late at night. He was a very generous man. Of course he had us working over in his garden [laughs]. He was over there putting us to work and he had these tapes playing all the time that he had recorded. He turned us on to a whole bunch of authentic music. Back then a kid from Passiac, New Jersey would have no way of hearing Clarence Ashley or the Stanley Brothers or Bill Monroe.
C: That’s what strikes me about your record label, Acoustic Disc. All of your artists seem really well connected to their roots. Even those that aren’t classically trained are still very knowledgeable about their craft. Did you initially approach people about recording on your label or did they come to you?
G: I don’t look at it as getting people on my label. I like to do projects. Most of the people I do these projects with are people I’ve known for a long time. Tony Rice was in my band. I like playing with different people. The other side of it is releasing music by Jethro Burns, Dave Avalon, and Jacko Dobandelin from Brazil. You know, music that wasn’t available that I had strong feelings about. It’s basically a repository for my musical ideas that can translate into recording projects. They may be old or new. I don’t like the idea of music as a disposable commodity. That’s one of my real gripes with the music industry at large. If something hasn’t come out in the last six months, it’s old hat and needs to be tossed away. There’s a lot of valuable, great music from the past that’s lying dormant on somebody’s shelf somewhere. I think music is timeless.
D: I was in a restaurant and heard something play the other night. It’s absolutely amazing how a little piece of music that you don’t even remember the name of can stir nostalgic memories to the point that it makes you almost want to cry. Music is timeless if it’s good.