From Doc Watson to Lifetime Achievement Award: Dougie MacLean
In the 1970s, before he could make a living playing music, Scottish folk singer Dougie MacLean found himself with a temporary job driving an American family around Europe in a mini-bus. It was a serendipitous moment for a performer who just received a lifetime achievement accolade at the BBC Folk Awards: The family was that of Doc and Merle Watson, two of America’s most celebrated bluegrass, country and gospel singers.
MacLean did not know who they were at first but ended up “blown away” by them, jamming with them in the evenings and listening to them belting out gospel on German autobahns. Speaking from his home in Butterstone, Perthshire, MacLean says he took some joy from listening to father and son Doc and Merle playing together, something he now does from time to time with his own son. “It was magical,” he said.
MacLean’s own folk borders on the traditional with a lot of poetic Scottish nostalgia woven in, such as the haunting “Ready for the Storm”. His song “The Gael” was adapted to be the theme of the film “Last of the Mohicans” while “Caledonia” – perhaps his most celebrated work – is essentially a love song to his homeland, one that is said to bring the odd tear to Scottish listeners.
MacLean, a multi-instrumentalist, reckons not much has changed to the music that has been his stock in trade for nearly 40 years – but the internet has brought it to many more people. He admits that folk has not always been the biggest headline grabber in the music world, describing it as being “below the radar” for many.
But the internet is changing this, bringing the music more easily out of clubs and folk festivals to a wider world. “There’s another generation (listening),” MacLean said. “It’s quite nice to see it (folk music) getting more attention.”
There is something of a western folk renaissance under way in popular music. It encompasses balladeers like MacLean, new bands such as Britain’s Lau and America’s Carolina Chocolate Drops, and crossovers like the indie-folkists Mumford & Sons and alternative musician Sufjan Stevens.
“People are searching for something with some more substance to it,” MacLean said, contrasting folk with the kind of “institutional” music pushed by big recording companies and mainstream radio stations.
And folk music does have a remarkable pedigree. Travelling with the Watsons opened the young Scot’s eyes as well as his ears. “I learnt a lot about America – they came from Deep Gap, North Carolina,” he said.
That was a world away from MacLean’s Scottish home – but not necessarily as far away as it might seem. Doc and Merle, MacLean said, played music from an “unbroken tradition”. So does he.
This is an edited version of a story I wrote for my regular employer Reuters.