Dr. T. R. Bryan Wilkes Heritage Music Award:  Keith Watts

Keith Watts


The first stringed instrument Keith Watts ever touched was a ukulele his folks gave him for Christmas at the age of 8, and he still has the ukulele. His parents noticed every time a guitar player was on TV, Keith would be glued to the set. One day around 1970, his father brought home a Silvertone electric guitar that he bought from a young musician leaving for Viet Nam. It was for sale because the young man said he would probably never come home. Mr. Watts said he knew a young fellow that would play it for him while he was away.

Keith would get together with cousins to learn to read music, identify notes on the fret board, and make chords. A friend, Tom Goins taught him a lot of “musical things”.  Watts loved Johnny Cash, so Tom showed him techniques like how to muffle the strings with the heel of his hand to get Luther Perkins’ bassy thump. I learned how to “walk the bass strings” on I Walk the Line. The old Silvertone was traded for a Gibson ES120; Dad surprised him again!

In his St. Stephens High School years, Keith and his friend Michael Fox formed a band – or one could say they played music every chance they possibly could.  Social Studies and English teachers would have them perform folk and heritage music in class. A little later, teachers would come sign them out of class to play for other classes – the catch was that they were expected to convey facts about the history and cultural aspects of their music. This led them to study the musical heritage of many genres.

Michael Fox introduced Watts to an “ole timer” Jacob Hart. Jake was a story teller, luthier, a left handed fiddle player, and just a down to earth ole troubadour.  Keith gives ole Jake credit for truly sparking his interest in old time folk music and ways of the Appalachian area.

If you ask Watts to write down his musical influences, there would be pages. The one true singer-songwriter-actor at the top of the list would be Kris Kristofferson. The Beatles, Credence Clearwater, Allman Brothers, rock-lord Robert Plant and Led Zeppelin, Leslie West, but the list goes much deeper. Throw in Charlie Poole, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Skillet Lickers, Riley Puckett, Doc Watson, Gram Parsons, James Taylor, and Emmylou Harris and you have a good start. All these folks do music and music is our universal language.

Watts met Dudley Culp, founder of the Green Grass Cloggers in 1977, began attending Dudley’s folk-dance workshops and fell in love with traditional dance and the music. Watts and several friends formed Uncle Waldoes Free Lunch Old Time String Band from 1977 until 1984 to play at just such dances. He played with Possum Hollar Ole Time String Band (formed by Michael Fox) from 1975 and still plays with them today.

In 1985, Watts left Hickory, NC and moved to Wilkesboro, NC and married his wife Debbie. Watts is a graduate of Catawba Valley Technical (Community) College in Hickory, NC and Gardner-Webb University in Boiling Springs, NC. He has been an instructor at Wilkes Community College since 1999.

In 2000, Watts along with the late Dr. Steven Duncan founded Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society Inc., a 501(c) 3 not for profit organization.  WAFS continues today with monthly meetings and major fundraisers to support music scholarships for deserving youths in Wilkes and surrounding foothills of NC. In 2002, Watts and the Folk Society were honored with North Carolina’s Outstanding Volunteer award. Since 2004, eighteen scholarships have been awarded to The Swannanoa Gathering in Asheville, NC and Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Jam Camp at YMCA Camp Harrison in Wilkes County. Each year Watts schedules and coordinates musician volunteers for the MerleFest Pickin’ Place for the entire week of MerleFest. The Pickin’ Place is a venue of its own for all music lovers to visit during MerleFest. Watts is quick to point out that one does not have to play an instrument to be a music lover!

Throughout all these years and all his love for music, this little known amateur musician has enjoyed the pickin’ in churches, retirement homes, “laundry-matts”, libraries, streets, sidewalks, weddings, Civil War skits, funerals, anniversaries, Mint-Museum teas, book excerpt readings, radio program, fiddlers conventions, and festivals just about everywhere in the mountains of North Carolina, South Carolina, Virginia and Tennessee for the pure-tee fun of it. He has judged musical competitions and even built instruments. Watts has cut several CD’s and was part of the award winning Tom Dooley; A Wilkes County Legend soundtrack.

Watts says, “The best and most important musical influences have been my friends and the sharing that takes place in informal jam sessions. There is nothing or any artist that can take the place of my wife and my musical friends.  They are forever in my heart.”


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