JOHNSON CITY – An East Tennessee State University faculty member has had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to play a role in preserving the valuable history of one of bluegrass and old-time music’s biggest legends, the late Doc Watson.
Roy Andrade, an assistant professor of Bluegrass, Old Time and Country Music Studies in ETSU’s Department of Appalachian Studies, produced and co-annotated a four-CD bookset, “Milestones: Legends of the Doc Watson Clan.” Created by Watson’s daughter, Nancy Watson, this set contains 94 previously unreleased songs and stories by Doc Watson and other family members, as well as 60 collages containing more than 500 Watson family photos.
“‘Milestones’ is the Watson family musical story in music and in photograph, created from within the Watson family,” Andrade explained. “To the best of my knowledge, this is the first time there’s been an anthology or a collection of a musical family created by the family (members) themselves.
“‘Milestones’ is a teenage Nancy Watson recording her grandfather and her aunts and uncles. It’s Doc Watson recording his wife Rosa Lee in the ’60s. It’s Rosa Lee Watson recording her daughter Nancy. It’s all within the family. Doc Watson is the focus here, but there are more than 30 other members of the Watson clan whose music is presented here, as well.”
The project actually got its start in the late 1960s when Nancy Watson responded to an ad placed in a newspaper by Dr. Thomas Burton and the late Ambrose Manning, who were professors of English at ETSU at that time. As part of their research, they were collecting folklore, ballads, music, superstitions and beliefs, folk remedies and accounts of everyday life from individuals in Western North Carolina and East Tennessee, and grant funding allowed them to purchase tape recorders that could be checked out by the public and used to record such accounts. The resulting Burton-Manning Collection is now housed in the Archives of Appalachia, part of the Center for Appalachian Studies and Services at ETSU.
“Nancy Watson saw the ad and thought, ‘Well, I’ve got a lot of music in my family,’” Andrade said. “So she came here to Johnson City and picked up a tape recorder from Dr. Burton and Mr. Manning, and went back home and started recording her family. And I’d say that 20 percent of what’s here in ‘Milestones’ came from those recordings, so there’s a strong connection to ETSU in ‘Milestones.’”
Around three decades later – in 1999 – Nancy Watson called the Archives of Appalachia to inquire whether her interviews with her father could be transcribed. Andrade, a longtime fan and old-time musician himself, was thrilled to accept that task, and, after he delivered the completed transcripts, an appreciative Nancy Watson gave him tickets to Merlefest, an annual music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., established in memory of her brother, Merle Watson.
The two became friends, and in 2000, Andrade contacted Nancy Watson to ask if he could gather and release some of the music of her grandfather, Gaither Carlton. She asked him to wait while she worked on “a project,” after which they could talk about it.
Ten years later, Andrade received a call from Nancy Watson, who had remembered her promise and wanted to let him know she had completed her project. However, his initial idea of releasing her grandfather’s music was put on hold once he learned the essence of her mysterious project and got involved with it himself, ultimately helping to raise the money needed to put it together and see it to completion.
In addition to the material from the Burton-Manning Collection, the music and stories in “Milestones” came from Doc Watson’s personal reel-to-reel tape collection that his daughter found out in the shed, in Tupperware containers, on shelves, in drawers, and in the nightstands.
“Milestones” is in book form, with four CDs and book sections entitled “Origins,” “The Early Years,” “Changes” and “Revival.” For each song and interview track, recording details and identification of the vocalists and musicians are given, along with liner notes by Andrade.
“The liner notes are written from many conversations over probably a couple hundred hours I spent with Doc, at his home, talking to him about the music,” Andrade said. “Rather than being academic, they are anecdotal.
“Doc didn’t like to be interviewed. I didn’t ask to interview him. Instead, I said, ‘Doc, I’m gonna bring my banjo. Can we pick some?’ And so, we’d play a bit, and I’d always have a short list in my back pocket of the songs I wanted to know about on that trip.
“When it felt like an appropriate time,” Andrade continued, “I would say, ‘Doc, that camp meeting song – tell me about that. Did you make that up?’ He’d say, ‘Oh, no!’ and then he’d get going.”
In addition to “Old Camp Meeting Time,” the collection includes “When Shall I See Jesus,” sung by Doc, his brother, Arnold, and their mother, Annie, from 1964; “You Are My Sunshine,” sung by Doc and Rosa Lee in 1964; “The Churning Song,” sung by Annie from 1969; some one-man band numbers performed by Doc; recollections by Doc, Rosa Lee and Merle on how Merle learned to play guitar; and more.
It even has 13 numbers featuring Doc Watson on the electric guitar, such as “Stardust,” “Somebody Stole My Gal” and “Cimarron.” Most of those recordings date back to the days before Watson became a celebrated old-time picker, when he supported his family by playing jazz music in Johnson City with fellow musicians Jack Williams and Frog Greene.
Accompanying Andrade’s liner notes are the photo collages Nancy Watson created using construction paper, glue, glitter, scissors, tape and other crafting materials.
“It took about two weeks to make each of the photo collages,” Andrade said. “There are amazing detail and an incredible amount of time, and love, and care that have gone into this.
“I’ve heard it called a ‘living room anthology.’ I think that describes it well.”“Milestones: Legends of the Doc Watson Clan” may be purchased online from Open Records at http://www.docwatsonmilestones.com/openRecordsStore.html.