Doc Watson, the seven-time Grammy winning traditional country musician from North Carolina, is among America’s most influential guitarists. Discovered playing a Les Paul in 1960 by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, Doc (Arthel, his given name, was considered too weird for the stage, so “Doc,” a reference to Sherlock Holmes’ physician sidekick, was suggested) was persuaded by Rinzler to shed his electric ax for an acoustic so his music could appeal to the burgeoning folk revival. Watson’s scintillating flatpicking style, which encompassed note-for-note versions of fiddle tunes and flashy instrumental song breaks derived from western swing, soon led to the emergence of the guitar as a bluegrass lead instrument after Clarence White learned it and featured it in the Kentucky Colonels. Watson’s talents didn’t end with flatpicking, either—he was also an accomplished fingerpicker, banjoist, and harmonica player with a rich baritone voice.
Now 87, he came to the Egg Sunday night with his longtime electric bassist T. Michael Coleman, grandson Richard Watson on guitar, and ace banjo picker and guitarist David Holt, to perform his signature tunes. You can’t expect any octogenarian to play as he did in his prime, but by and large, Watson still packed lightning in his fingers.
With Holt and Coleman in tow, Watson, wearing gray slacks and a brown-and-gray- patterned shirt, opened with Uncle Dave Macon’s “Way Downtown.” Holt’s clawhammer banjo work was fluid and flawless, and Doc held his own on flatpicked guitar. Next he played “Shady Grove” a song with which he used to woo his future bride, Rosalee Carlton. Holt was even better here, climbing the neck for some deft drop-thumb runs.
Watson learned hoedown tunes after he joined a string band that lacked a fiddler and he had to carry the lead on guitar. The trio breezed through one such breakdown, “Whiskey Before Breakfast.” Another highlight was “Deep River Blues,” which Watson took from a 1930s Delmore Brothers song and arranged in Merle Travis’ fingerpicking style.
For the second set, Watson began playing fingerstyle on Elizabeth Cotton’s “Freight Train.” In a painful moment, his picking collapsed during the next tune, Kris Kristofferson’s “For the Good Times,” but he rallied with Merle Travis’ “I Am a Pilgrim.” Rejoined by Coleman and now grandson Richard, a garage-band-level guitarist who played up-the-neck blues riffs better suited to classic rock than the genre at hand, Doc yodeled with panache on Jimmie Rodgers’ version of the old blues number “Frankie and Johnny.” With Holt back onstage, they finished with a swaggering rendition of John Hurt’s “Got the Blues, Can’t Be Satisfied.”
Watson and company offered no encore, but legends of his stature don’t need to.