Doc Watson born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, NC is a legendary performer who blends his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues to create a unique style and expansive repertoire. He is a powerful singer and tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar.
Recipient of the National Medal of Arts, National Heritage Fellowship and eight Grammy Awards (including Lifetime achievement, Doc Watson is a legendary performer who blends his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues to create a unique style and expansive repertoire. He is a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar
Doc was born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, NC on March 23, 1923, into a family already rich in musical tradition. His mother Annie Watson sang traditional, secular, and religious songs, and his father, General Watson played the banjo, which was Doc’s first instrument. At age thirteen he taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar, and his delighted father bought him a $12 Stella. He later picked up some chords from a fellow student at Raleigh School for the Blind, and began to incorporate material that he heard on records and the radio with the music of his heritage. Back home he played mostly with neighbors and family, among them fiddle Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947. They became parents of two children, merle and Nancy Ellen.
It wasn’t until 1953 at age thirty that he met Jack Williams, a local piano player, and began to play gigs for money. Doc played with Williams rockabilly/swing band for seven years, a period and a style that he revisited in the recent album Docabilly; but he continued to play traditional music with his family and his banjo playing neighbor, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, spurred by the growing folk festival, Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley and discovered Doc Watson in the process. These sessions resulted in Doc’s first recordings, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s. In recent years Doc has returned to this old-time pre-bluegrass style in collaborations with David Grisman and David Holt. The latter, entitled Legacy, recently received the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk recordings of 2002.
In 1961 the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Doc, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a now-legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Doc gave his first solo performance at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. From then on he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.
As the late sixties brought a waning of the folk revival, Doc’s son Merle provided the musical and emotional companionship that he needed to continue touring. With Merle playing guitar and banjo and serving as partner and driver, the father-son team expanded their audience nationwide. After working for a while with the band Frosty morn, they continued to tour with bassist T. Michael Coleman, and brought their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of remarkable recordings, including collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped make Watson the gold standard among traditional pickers.
Doc briefly stopped performing after Merle died in a 1985 tractor accident, but continued to accept a limited number of engagements and hosted the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival, better known as MerleFest, in Wilkesboro until his death in 2012.
Earl Eugene Scruggs, born in Shelby North Carolina, is a legendary musician noted for perfecting and popularizing a 3-finger banjo style that has become a defining characteristic of bluegrass music. The creative contribution and musical integrity he has made with his unique Scruggs-Style banjo has carved him a place in history.
Earl Scruggs, born in NC, began playing banjo at the age of four using a two-finger style. By the age of ten he had developed his own unique “Scruggs-Style Picking”. His first banjo, purchased from Montgomery-Ward, cost $10.95. He later bought a Gibson RB-11 used when he began playing professionally. The banjo closest to Earl’s heart, the Snuffy Jenkins Gibson Granada, was purchased for $37.50 in a SC pawn shop.
From 1941-1945 Earl worked in a mill but his urge to play music moved him to Knoxville, TN. In December 1945 Earl auditioned and joined Bill Monroe’s band which included bandmate Lester Flatt. Their band performances at the Grand Ole Opry stunned audiences. The recordings of Monroe’s band set the standards for what would become known as bluegrass music.
Earl teamed with Lester Flatt in 1948 to form a band with members Mac Wiseman, Jim Shumate and Howard (Cedric Rainwater) Watts and began The Flatt and Scruggs Show. They recorded twenty-eight sides for Mercury prior to signing with Columbia Records in 1950. To give Earl melodic precision and accuracy while playing his own “Earl’s Breakdown”, recorded in 1951, he invented “Scruggs Tuners”.
By 1953 Martha White Food Company sponsored the Flatt and Scruggs radio show, becoming one of music industry’s most successful business ventures. Louise, Earl’s wife, began managing the band by 1955, booking them in many non-traditional venues such as the first Newport Folk Festival in RI.
Paul Henning, TV creator, writer, and producer, saw them at a Los Angeles club and approached them about a new show called “The Beverly Hillbillies”. Three weeks after the show premiered on CBS, it was rated as the #1 television program. Louise and Henning coordinated the recording of “The Ballad of Jed Clamplett” which held the #1 position on the Billboard country charts and crossed over to pop charts. A live version of the song recorded at Carnegie Hall was later nominated for a Grammy.
In 1967 Warren Beatty and Earl collaborated on the music for the movie “Boonie and Clyde”. Earl used “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” throughout the movie and the recording reached both the country and pop charts to win BMI and Grammy awards in 1968. Flatt and Scruggs dissolved their partnership during this time.
Earl’s home was filled with music as his sons all developed musical interests and artist friends stopped by to play with Earl. Late in 1969 Earl and his sons Randy, Gary and Steve formed the “Earl Scruggs Revue”, influenced by many of their peers. Earl made it clear that if conventional styles proved to be synonymous with limitations, then they had no place in his music as demonstrated by the Revue and two films about his life. In 1975 a two-volume album celebrating Earl’s 25th Anniversary was recorded with thirty-nine artists. The Revue toured until 1980 and received accolades as one of the most inventive, respected and creative bands in history.
In the 1990s Earl continued to record, tour and make guest appearances. He released an all-new solo album on MCA in 2001, the instrumental “Foggy Mountain Breakdown”, featuring Steve Martin, Leon Russell, Vince Gill, Albert Lee and others, became one of the few songs recorded by the same artist to win a second Grammy.
In 2005 Earl was voted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum followed by a special year-long exhibit to honor Earl and Louise’s contributions. His awards, too numerous to name, include National Medal of Arts Award, seventeen Grammy nominations, star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame and Honorary PHD from the Berklee college of Music in Boston.
Earl was a true inspiration throughout the world and is unmatched as a legendary leader in musical integrity and creative contribution. Peter Gelzinia wrote in the Boston Herald American, “Earl Scruggs may well go down in musical history as the man who took the banjo out of the pawnshops, down from the attic and from under the bed”. Earl Scruggs passed away March 28, 2012.
The musical life of David Johnson began with his exposure to the sounds and sights of live acoustic music in the mountains of his native Wilkes County almost from the moment of his birth. Nurtured by a family of musicians dating back many generations, David went from early performances as a square dance musician alongside of his father, Billie Johnson, playing banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin, to work in a country band with studio owner Marshal Craven as a steel guitar player in his early teens. This background coupled with a helping of Top 40 and rockabilly in high school led David to a two year stint as a sideman with Bill Hefner on a weekly television broadcast on WBTV in Charlotte, N.C. and employment in the budding area recording studios springing up in the southeastern states during the 1970s.
From the moment of his birth, David Johnson was exposed to the sound and sights of live acoustic music from the mountains of his native North Carolina. Nurtured by a family of musicians dating back many generations, David went from early performances as a square dance musician alongside his father, Billie Johnson, playing banjo, guitar, fiddle and mandolin to work in a country band with studio owner Marshal Craven as a steel guitar player in his early teens. This background, coupled with a helping of Top 40 and rockabilly in high school, led David to a two year stint as a sideman with Bill Hefner on a weekly television broadcast on WBTV in Charlotte, NC. During this same time he found employment in the budding area recording studios that were springing up in the southeastern states during the 1970s.
Combining work as a teacher of musical instruments with weekly recording sessions, David added bass, electric guitar, autoharp, keyboards and harmonica to his studio arsenal in the 1980s. Also during this time, David helped found and operate the exciting variety band known as Dixie Dawn. He travelled the east coast with this band for many years working clubs, concerts, and a long list of promotional clients such as Western Steer Steakhouse and Farm Credit Banks.
In the late 1980s, David retired from the road trips and settled into two very comfortable house jobs with Dixie Dawn on weekends and pursued a full time career in recording work as a sideman, arranger, and producer. Specializing in southern gospel, country and related acoustic music, David worked for many artists in all the above genres including The Kingsmen, The McKameys, The Talley Trio, The Florida Boys, The Isaacs, Tony Rice, Ralph Stanley, Doyle Lawson, The Primitive Quartet, George Hamilton IV, Arthur Smith, George Beverly Shea, Porter Wagoner, Larry Sparks, and a host of others. His professional career in recording started in 1969 and now spans well over 40 years.
David professes a love of music, a love for Christ, a love for his wife Anne, and his son Nathan. His father, Billie, was his mentor and accompanied him to many of his recording dates. David has always, and hopes to continue to, call Wilkes County and western North Carolina his home.
The original Carter Family, consisting of A. P. Carter, Sara Doughtery, and A. P.’s sister-in-law, Mother Maybelle Addington Carter from Virginia, was one of the most influential groups in mountain music, switching emphasis from hillbilly instrumentals to vocals. They made their songs part of the standard country music repertoire and developed a particular guitar style that is used as a building block, taken to a higher technical level by musicians even today.
The Carter Family was a country music group that made their first recording for Ralph Peer in 1927 during the famed Bristol recordings on the Victor label and continued to record until 1956. Their music, representative of the southeastern musical heritage, had a profound influence on bluegrass, blues, country and southern gospel and during the folk revival of the 1960s.
While traveling through the South in his teens and early twenties selling fruit trees and collecting songs, Alvin Pleasant (A.P.) Carter met his wife Sara Doughtery making their home in Maces Spring, Va. The original Family consisted of A.P. Carter who played fiddle and sang, Sara who played autoharp and sang alto lead, and A.P.’s sister-in-law Maybelle Addington Carter, who played guitar and sang harmony.
With their first recording, Peer recognized that the combination of their “wholesome moralistic” songs, Sara’s voice, and Maybelle’s guitar playing made them not only marketable in that time, but their large collection of traditional songs a treasure in itself. They were famous for the kind of harmony singing found for many years in music of their times, but perhaps the so-called “Carter lick” played on the guitar by Maybelle Carter became the best know picking style in the genre of music. In fact, prior to the introduction of the “Carter lick” the guitar had rarely been used as a lead or solo instrument. Her interweaving of melodic line on the bass strings has become a staple of steel string guitar players and flat pickers such as Doc Watson, Clarence White and Norman Blake. They were influenced by Maybelle, taking her style to a more technical level.
Despite their achievements, the Carter Family never found the financial success of their peers such as Jimmy Rodgers or Gene Autry because they never crossed over to the more popular network radio, Hollywood films or vaudeville. Time and again they would return to their precious Clinch Mountain Valley confused or disgusted by the show business world.
Their first recording “bury Me Under the Weeping Willow” an old folk tune, their theme song, “Keep on the Sunny Side” and other recordings such as “wildwood Flower”, “Wabash Cannonball” and “Worried Man Blues” have become country standards. They worked at XERA, Del Rio, TX in the mid-30s, which broadcasted across the border making them an early international favorite. After their last radio show was performed in 1942 Maybelle Carter, often referred to as the “Queen of Country Music,” continued the Carter tradition with her daughters, Anita, Helen, and June.
The Carter Family became a part of the Country Music Hall of Fame in 1970 and given the nickname “The First Family of Country Music.” In 1988 they were inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame and received an award for “Will the Circle be Unbroken.” In 1993 the US Postal Service issued a commemorative postage stamp honoring A.P., Sara, and Maybelle. In 2001 they were inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame and in 2005 received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
Thomas Jefferson Jarrell was born in Surry County, North Carolina. He is considered one of the most influential fiddle players of his time, sharing his talents and teaching style with interested musicians. Jarrell's style was notable for its expressiveness and he was adept at singing while playing. His formidable technique and voice continue to influence modern enthusiasts of the Appalachian old-time music through recordings today.
Born in 1901 in a remote section of Surry County, NC, Thomas Jefferson Jarrell, became an American fiddler, banjo player and singer from the Appalachian Mountains who became known throughout the world. Tommy grew up in a working farm family. The family hired Bauga Cockerham to help on the farm and when Tommy was about seven, Cockerham taught him to play the banjo. At the age of thirteen, Tommy began learning to play his dad’s fiddle and by the age of fourteen, Tommy borrowed ten dollars from Huston Moore to purchase his own fiddle from Tony Lowe’s widow. This fiddle is now a part of the Smithsonian Institute collection in Washington D.C.
Tommy grew up playing at local dances all around the Round Peak area of North Carolina and Virginia held in conjunction with wood choppings, barn raisings, apple peelings, bean stringings, or corn shuckings. He attended Ivy Green School but quit in the seventh grade. In 1918 Tommy’s uncle, Charlie Jarrell, taught him to make sugar whiskey while Tommy’s grandfather was licensed by the government to make apple brandy which they continued to make until Prohibition brought that venture to an end. At one time, Tommy traveled to South Dakota to make whiskey for a North Carolina native unhappy with the local product.
After two years of courting Nina Frances Lowe, Tommy is reputed to have told her that “…I make whiskey, I play poker, and I go to dances, make music, and I don’t know whether I’ll ever quit that or not. But, if you think we can get along now, we’ll get married – and if you don’t think we can, right now’s the time to say something.” They were married in 1923, moved to Mount Airy and later settled in Toast, NC. They had three children and Tommy worked with the North Carolina Department of Transportation driving a motor grader for 41 years, retiring in 1966. During his years working for the NC DOT, Tommy played only in his free time.
Tommy’s legendary fiddle laying which incorporated special bow movements he called “racking the bow” and “catching up the stack” created “imaginative variations of traditional tunes.” After the death of his wife in 1960, Tommy began to play more often starting a recording career and by 1975, Tommy had recorded seven albums, traveled to many colleges and universities, appeared at many festivals around the country and played at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C. He received the Brown Hudson Folklore Award in 1981 from the North Carolina Folklore Society in recognition of his musical talents and his role as a collector and teacher of traditional music.
In 1982, Tommy was selected as one of fifteen master folk artists in the first National Fellowships of the national Endowment for the Arts. He received a certificate and monetary award at a ceremony at the annual Folklife Festival in Washington D.C. and a film entitles, “Sprout Wings and Fly” was produced and directed by Les Blank, CeCe Conway and Alice Gerrand and can still be purchased on video today. A second film, also produced by Blank, was done in 1994 entitles “My Old Fiddle: A Visit with Tommy Jarrell in the Blue Ridge.”
As Tommy’s popularity grew, people came from all over the world to play and study him often staying long periods of time at his home. Many musicians today remember with great admiration studying with Tommy including Kirk Sutphin, Paul Brown and Phil Jamison. Tommy died in 1983 at the age of 83 but his legacy lives on today not only in his personal accomplishments but that of his influence on his students.