“If anyone would have told me when I first started making this here crafting that it’d be the headache it is sometimes, I would have throwed every knife I have away and quit,” Willard Watson said in a 1970s interview. “But I’m into it now. I’ve got so many places that wants just exactly what I make, and I’m the only man now that makes exactly what I make. There’s not nigh another craftsman that makes them walking mules. There has been a few craftsmen who make the pecking chickens, but they’ve all been rougher’n’ a cob.”
Willard Watson, a first cousin to famed guitarist Doc, was widely known as a flatfoot dancer, storyteller, banjo player, and especially a woodcarver. By his own estimation, he was a man that “can’t hardly be whipped by a piece of wood.” His contraptions celebrated his rich imagination and close-to-earth values, as well as his delightful sense of play. “I stayed in the woods twenty years or better,” Willard said. “If I could take it I’d go back to the woods yet. It was borned in me. I always loved to work in the woods, loved good timber.”
Willard traveled around the region to fairs and festivals to sell his goods, along with is wife, Ora, who was an expert quilter. The two were regular participants at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, and they presented at the National Folk Festival and Newport Folk Festival. Their work is included in the Smithsonian Institution. Willard prided himself in doing good work. “If I go to make anything it’s got to suit me and then it’ll suit the public,” Willard said. “Now that’s just what kind of fellow Willard is.”
Willard’s banjo playing is documented on a variety of recordings, including the Clawhammer Banjo albums on County Records. There is footage of Willard dancing on a film of old-time music from the Newport Folk Festival in the 1960s, with Clark Kessinger playing fiddle. Willard’s cheerful sense of humor, stories, and wood carvings left a deep impression on Watauga County and the surrounding region.