ew artists embody the spirit, diversity and history of traditional American folk music like Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson. Not only was Watson a real creative driving force for the folk music revival in the 1960s, but he has managed to stay relevant in the decades that followed despite an ever-changing popular music landscape. Given this historical background, it is really surprising that Kent Gustavson's comprehensive new tome marks the first true Doc Watson biography in print.
From the start of this book, it is clear that Gustavson reveres Watson as an artist and as a key figure in American music history. While lesser authors might succumb to the trappings of fandom, Gustavson uses his academic background to present an extensively researched and fairly even accounting of the artist's life.
Watson's life story is a tale of triumph, tragedy and perseverance and Gustavson expertly combines narrative and interviews to cover a lot of historical ground in only 335 pages. From his birth in 1923 and the permanent loss of his vision less than a year later to the death of his son and musical companion Eddy Merle Watson in 1985 and the creation of the annual memorial festival MerleFest in 1988, this book covers all of the major high and low points in Watson's life and career.
Gustavson rightfully spends a lot of time on Watson's relationship with folklorist Ralph Rinzler. He "discovered" Watson during a 1960 trip to North Carolina with fellow ethnomusicologist Eugene Earle to record Clarence "Tom" Ashley. He asked Watson to join the sessions, and Rinzler was impressed by his obvious talents, so much so that he asked Watson to perform on additional recording sessions. This opened doors that resulted in appearances at Carnegie Hall, the Newport Folk Festival and a spot on the legendary Friends of Old Time Music lineup, thus launching Watson's career nationally.
Another major focal point is Merle Watson's accidental death and how it changed Watson's life from both personally and professionally. Gustavson relies heavily on interviews to show the real and lasting impact this tragedy made on Watson. The author also does a great job of presenting many different and often conflicting viewpoints about the cause of the fatal tractor accident.
Writing the first Watson biography is a daunting task, but it is one that Gustavson handled with a deft touch. Although he was certainly aided by interviews from more than 35 artists including Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Norman Blake, Tony Rice and Marty Stuart, it took a great deal of skill to bring it all together in one comprehensive but concise package.