Interview: Author Dr. Kent Gustavson Discusses His Doc Watson Biography "Blind But Now I See"

Over the last couple of years I have been digging into some really great biographies. One of my favorites is Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson by Dr. Kent Gustavson, who is an award winning author, professor, and musician. The book is the first biography ever written on the life and music of Doc Watson.

Blind But Now I See is now available in its expanded second printing, with a third and even more expansive edition already in the works, that will include many new exclusive interviews and photographs since Doc's passing. I recently had the opportunity to speak with the author regarding his experiences writing a landmark biography on this humble, yet incredibly inspiring artist.

Hi Kent. Before we dig into your biography of Doc Watson, I'd like to start with some of your own personal and musical history. Can you discuss your own personal interest in music?

Kent Gustavson: Yikes! That's going way back. My dad takes credit for this. At age 3, I heard my sister play the piano, and I insisted that I also be given piano lessons. I banged on the keys, and I remember the delight I had at the sweet sound of the black keys and the simplicity of the white ones. I think my first improvised composition was "Thunderstorm" - not hard to create with a couple of elbows and a few tinkly fingers on the high keys. I was the first 3-year-old Cecil Taylor impersonator.

In terms of when I channeled that passion into something that sounded good, I went through a few phases, always finding that the trodden path was a bit boring:I learned classical piano, which was lovely, but took far too much practicing. My parents tell me that I won a contest, then told them I was quitting. So I did. Then I started playing string bass in 5th grade, thanks to a great orchestra teacher in Stillwater, Minnesota who thought I was a plunky sort of fellow. I played Irish Washerwoman with about 50 other kids in front of an audience, and I was hooked. I really started to love the instrument in college, when Michael Chorney showed me that freedom was really possible within music performance.

In a roundabout way, I ended up studying for my PhD in classical composition. I found the dramatic, electronic, and wacko elements of modern composition fascinating, but was far more thrilled when certain classmates started calling me "banjo man" and I joined with two Baroque musicians to craft an Appalachian-Baroque trio called Stolen Shack.

Long story short, I have always loved music, and I always will. If you know someone who loves music as much as I do, you know the type - someone who can't stop playing it, talking about it, living it. 

When and how did you first become passionate about music and begin to pursue it academically?

Kent: As I mentioned above, Michael Chorney was a huge influence on me in college. He recently performed on Anais Mitchell's records and he is responsible for a great deal of the eclectic beauty in her sound. At the same time, I was really getting into the outer limits of classical music, and was fascinated by aleatory and electronic music, late Coltrane and the like. I also spent 6 months studying in Jerusalem during college, where I spent much of my time in the eastern part of the city which is Arab, studying the Arabic lute, and playing bass with a local traditional Palestinian music ensemble...

I fell in love with Middlebury College's LP collection one spring break that I decided not to leave campus. I spent 20 hours a day listening to and ripping records to my cassette recorder. I was amazed by the dirty, scratchy, rich tunes that I found in the old stacks that have now been digitized, scrubbed and sold off in lots for a dime apiece.

I first really listened to Doc Watson there, when, in the middle of listening to a series of John Lomax recordings, I stumbled across a copy of The Watson Family by Folkways records. His voice was so rock solid in those family hymns that I still sing the bass part today, because it's stronger in my mind than the melody!

In any case, I was into all kinds of music in college, from crunchy Bach recordings to field chants from Africa. I especially loved plunky sounds like clawhammer banjo, prepared piano and Latin percussion, and I loved rough and thick voices from Tom Waits to Reverend Gary Davis. It would have been hard to play me something I wouldn't like at that stage.

Can you discuss when and how you first discovered the music of Doc Watson?

Kent: When I really started to love and internalize the music of Doc Watson was when my best friend, Micah Schonberg, and I would sing his songs. Micah has an incredible encyclopedic memory for song lyrics (not unlike Doc's memory was), and when he and I would play, he would always suggest tunes that I had never heard before. Most of Doc's repertoire came to me that way, through Micah's baritone imitations of Doc tunes.

The songs that changed my life, and made me into a lifelong Doc Watson devotee were the hymns. Micah first taught me the words to "Talk About Suffering", and then I heard Doc's version of it. Micah taught me the words to "Trouble In Mind" that Doc sang with Clarence Ashley, and then I heard him do it. Soon, I started to listen to every Doc record I could get my hands on, and I became enthralled by his voice, and his tone on the guitar.

How has Doc's  music influenced your own experiences listening to and learning about other kinds of music?

Kent: Doc did for me what he did for so many other musicians. He pointed the way backwards. How many people have checked out the Skillet Lickers because of the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, where Doc talks about them? Countless. And Doc didn't point in just one direction. He pointed me towards the blues, early rock and roll, traditional Appalachian fiddle music, and balladry. He literally started a brush fire in my musical mind.

And of course, Doc ruined a lot of music for me. His ability to simplify things, to play cleanly and emotionally, and to sing straight to the heart of a tune, are second to none. I can't listen to much other music that doesn't have the same kind of heart. Doc felt every note, and he meant every word of every tune he sang and played. So many other musicians can learn that lesson from him.

Can you discuss how Doc's music and/ or life story inspired you to want to write the first biography on him?

Kent:I started thinking about Doc's life and career when I was finishing up my PhD in classical composition. That's a bit strange, I know, but it makes sense if I explain the context.

I was doing research on Ruth Crawford Seeger's transcription skill, specifically her ability to transcribe field recordings in absolute perfection on the written staff. Her husband (and Pete, Mike and Peggy Seeger's father) Charles Seeger wrote about prescriptive and descriptive transcription: one describing the music perfectly, but very difficult to perform, and the other making the music accessible to the masses. In Ruth Seeger's work with Alan Lomax, her transcriptions were not what he was looking for. Lomax wanted the music to be "playable" while Seeger was more interested in the "descriptive" aspect of her transcription.

In any case, I was doing a doctoral lecture on this topic, when I started thinking about "The Coo Coo Bird" and Clarence Ashley's version of it, passed down to Doc Watson, and so forth... Long story made shorter, I was hooked. I dug around and wanted to find out more about Doc Watson, but I couldn't find much. Eventually, I found more information at the Ralph Rinzler Archives in Washington D.C., and some other places, and I simply couldn't stop at that point. I was hooked! Doc's life is fascinating in so many directions musically, historically, and so forth.

Did you meet Doc?

Kent: I only met Doc once. He and his agent did not support the writing or publication of this biography, and he declined participation for 5 years. We may have persevered, but he never relented. Doc never wanted a biography written about himself. That is a testament to two things.

First, Doc never wanted to be "put on a pedestal," and he likely believed that a biography would possibly become a hagiography, which he wouldn't like. Second, I don't believe Doc wanted to speak publicly ever again about his son Merle and his substance abuse problems. I think it's a tragic and important part of Doc's story that is vital to his tormented later career, and there is certainly nothing to be ashamed of there. Doc was a parent who supported and loved his son, Merle, but tragically lost him due to many reasons, substance abuse among them... But Doc just didn't want anyone to go there.

Countless close friends and family members of Doc have come to me over the past two years and thanked me for writing this biography, and for really framing the reality surrounding his life. To many, my book really explained Doc's reclusive latter years, which is something they had never understood before... And I did my best not to make the book either a hagiography or a "gotcha" biography.

Can you discuss some of your most memorable and rewarding experiences with Doc's family, friends, collaborators, etc?

Kent: Gosh. It was such an honor to interview around 100 of Doc's closest friends, collaborators, and so forth. I am certainly not worthy of their names, titles and accomplishments. Many of my heroes are among their number, from Ben Harper to Jean Ritchie, running the gamut of styles and ages.

I would be hard-pressed to give you the best moment in this process... I would have to say, the feedback from family members of Doc Watson was the most valuable. People who said that I covered his time at the Raleigh School for the Blind well. People who connected to the genealogical aspects early in the book, or the chapter about Merle. Or the people who realized that there are pieces of the puzzle that are in this book that had never been revealed before. Those are the moments that are most rewarding to me.

What were some of the most enjoyable aspects, experiences, etc of writing the book?

Kent: It is a very difficult thing to take someone else's life and craft it into a story. It's a remarkable thing to step back when years and years of work are finished, and you can say that you've succeeded. It was a great honor to take Doc Watson's life and to put a shape to it that people might not have thought of before reading the book.

I hope that people realize the incredible network of people who supported Doc through the years, and the relationships that made his career possible. I think many of the players who were part of Doc's life were genuinely happy to be a part of the story as I told it here, and that was a great honor and pleasure for me.

What were some of the most challenging?

Kent: It is still hard for me to think about Merle's death and some other aspects of the book I have written. I remember that for weeks and months on end, I felt a terrible twisting in my own gut, when I was writing and dealing with that material, and conducting those interviews. It's very difficult to try to put on someone else's shoes, and to describe their world to the reader in whatever detail you can. It was a wonderful experience, but probably the most difficult thing I've ever done.

What elements were most surprising and/ or unexpected to you?

Kent: There were so many surprises throughout the process, that it's hard to put my finger on one. I suppose I was always surprised and thrilled when I figured out things that had never been figured out before, like piecing together a dozen accounts of a certain event into one description that is as close as historically accurate as possible...

The most unexpected thing for me was that this process would take so long. I think I would liken it to parenthood, though I don't have a child. I thought I was done when I had gathered all of my research. Then I thought I had completed everything when I had done the interviews. Then, when I completed the 1200-page first draft, I thought I was really almost there... I never thought that it would take six years to write the first edition, and that I would still be working on it two years later for an updated third edition! A biographer's work is never done!)

Now that the biography is in its second printing, I am curious how the experiences that you have had composing the book has changed, enhanced, and/ or provided you with new perspectives on the Doc's life story and his work when you listen to it now?

Kent: Yes. I changed the book fairly dramatically for the second edition, from my perspective. The ending of the book changed, and a great deal of the innards were shifted and shuffled around. I had the great opportunity of adding new interviews with Taj Mahal and others, and other such things...

The book has had more critical acclaim, which is in great part due to the very critical feedback that accompanied the first edition's release. I took all of the criticism to heart, and I think the 2nd edition is far improved. Of course, next year, the 3rd edition will be coming out, with even more interviews, and all set in the past tense, since we have now lost Doc, may he rest in peace.

What aspect(s) of Doc's history and musical legacy still intrigues and or fascinates you most? And what has been resonating with you most after completing the biography and listening to Doc's music now?

Kent: I am most fascinated by Doc's congeniality, his ability to befriend anyone. In his later years, Doc was a curmudgeon sometimes, but in the first two decades of his career, no one could hold a candle to Doc's personality on stage, and his ability to befriend musicians, and charm them silly. Everyone loved and loves Doc Watson. I really don't know any other figures in history, outside of politicians like Bill Clinton, who have had such an ability to charm people.

Then, of course, Doc would sit down and amaze with his incredible abilities on his instrument, and with his voice. But I am convinced that Doc made it because of his intellect and his personality. That amazes me. A blind boy from North Carolina who grows up in the Depression, then lives in abject poverty until he is brought into the folk scene just under age 40, when he proceeds to charm every folk club in America with his soft baritone and fiery guitar licks. Incredible.

How would you say that the work of Doc Watson continues to inspire and influence contemporary artists and listeners today?

Kent: Doc's DNA is everywhere. He is the gateway between the great electric guitar pickers of the 1940's like Merle Travis and Grady Martin and the great acoustic guitar pickers of the 1970's, including Tony Rice and Clarence White. He is the baritone voice that inspired singers from Bob Dylan and Joan Baez, to modern voices like Zac Brown and Alison Krauss.

It would be hard to pull one tone, one lick, one note, out of any musician's playing, and say, "That comes from Doc Watson." At the same time, you could pull a few notes from every great musician of the last few decades and trace them back to Doc's DNA.

If you were to make some personal recommendations, what you would call the "essential recordings" of Doc Watson? What ones would top your list and why?

Kent: One album that is a must have is On Praying Ground. Doc's voice is at its most passionate and emotional on that record, recorded only shortly after Merle died, and with the incredible back up vocals of the Nashville Bluegrass Band.

Since everyone buys tracks instead of albums these days, they should go out & purchase every a capella gospel tune Doc ever recorded, from "Beautiful Golden Somewhere" to "Down to the River to Pray". Essential albums are of course Will the Circle Be Unbroken (vol. 1, from 1972), and Doc's first records with Folkways (now available from Smithsonian Folkways).

The thing about Doc recordings is that everybody has their own favorites. I encourage people to sample a bit, and if they like Doc's instrumentals, they can dive right into those - there are plenty! And if they like his wonderful baritone voice, they should check out his spirituals or perhaps the cheesy pop tunes he occasionally threw into the mix. A great place to start is the live videos that are all over YouTube. It's incredible how many times Doc was video recorded and you can spend three weeks just checking them all out.

For newcomers just discovering Doc's work, which recordings would you recommend listeners begin with?

Kent: Doc's first album on Vanguard is still the best introduction to Doc's music. It's self-titled Doc Watson. Next, I would recommend the incredible Smithsonian-Folkways recordings with Clarence Ashley (The Original Folkways Recordings 1960-1962). Then, the latest 3-CD set recorded with David Holt (Legacy). Those are all great introductions.

Along the same lines, for fans who have heard some of Doc's, and would like to dig deeper, which recordings would you suggest, and which other additional artists might you also suggest?

Kent: Hmm. A deeper dig... I would say, there is one tune on every album that people don't know. And I encourage true fans to find that one track. My personal favorite is "Beautiful Golden Somewhere". I sang that acapella at my own grandmother's funeral. It's incredibly moving.

In other words, Doc recorded many different kinds of tunes of every record. Guy Clark loves "Columbus Stockade Blues" and obviously, Alison Krauss and Robert Plant liked "Your Lone Journey" enough to record it on their record together (incidentally, the song is called "Your Lone Journey", not "Your Long Journey", but it was registered under the wrong title by Ralph Rinzler early in Doc's career, and never was rescued from the wrong title!). Everyone can choose their favorite 12 Doc tunes and make an incredible album via iTunes. And that's the best way to listen to Doc, in my opinion.

I encourage people to follow Doc's music backwards. There is so much access to so much music these days that it's incredibly inspiring to listen to early 78 recordings of bands like the Skillet Lickers (with blind musician Riley Puckett's incredible runs on the guitar), Mississippi John Hurt or Clarence Ashley with the Tar Heels. Even some of the later 78s, of Jimmie Rodgers, the Carter Family and the Delmore Brothers, are incredible, if we all sit down and listen to the pops and the crackles of the old needle hitting the grooves.

Kids are starting to love LPs again. They should listen to the Will the Circle Be Unbroken on vinyl, and then go back and listen to every old 78 they can get their hands on... There's an incredible feeling when you turn off a record player and you can still hear the vibrations of a good tune. There's real value in that, although I like my digital 0's and 1's as well...

What have you been listening to lately that you have found significantly inspiring, and why/ how?

Kent: I absolutely am amazed by some of the kick-ass young music out there these days. Old Crow Medicine Show play the crap out of the old music. In fact, so did Springsteen with his album of Pete Seeger tunes recently. I love when music is simplified to its core, and then played acoustically at full emotional tilt.

I was lucky enough to check out the Woody Guthrie Centennial Concert down here in Tulsa a couple of months ago, and Old Crow backed up Arlo Guthrie singing lead. That was music... I was also really amazed by the incredible skills and sounds of the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Old Time music has attitude, soul, volume, finesse and true depth of emotion, and it's wonderful that these young groups have really liberated it from the dusty annals of aging archives. Crank it up!

What's next for you?

Kent: There are always too many projects going at once! At the moment, I'm excitedly gathering interviews for the 3rd edition of Blind But Now I See which will come out next spring. It will be a tribute edition. Basically the same content, now in the past tense, with a few more interviews, photographs and other features.

Chris Mateer is a freelance music writer living in Portland, OR. He is the founder and writer of the Uprooted Music Revue and has been contributing regularly to No Depression. In addition to music writing, Chris teaches visual art and plays the mandolin, banjo, and drums.

As a player and music writer, Chris is always excited to share and learn more. He believes a community thrives on participation and enthusiasm, and he's thrilled to contribute.

You can read his posts here on No Depression and on Uprooted Music Revue at http://www.uprootedmusicrevue.com/. To follow Chris and UMR more closely, sign up on UMR's Facebook page and subscribe to UMR's twitter feed.

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Tags: Ashley, Blind, But, Can, Carolina, Chocolate, Chris, Clarence, Crow, David, More…Doc, Dr., Drops, Folkways, Gustavson, Holt, I, Interviews, Kent, Lickers, Mateer, Medicine, Music, Now, Old, Revue, See, Show, Skillet, Smithsonian, Uprooted, Watson, biography

Comment by Rev. Eryk Pruitt on September 18, 2012 at 9:01am

This was amazing.  Thank you for posting this.

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Created by No Depression Feb 17, 2009 at 9:06pm. Last updated by No Depression Sep 24, 2012.