One Christmas morning, when I was probably 9 or 10, Santa brought me a nice stereo turntable outfit. I'll never forget walking toward the thing and seeing that there were four Doc Watson records leaning up against it—Southbound, Doc and Merle Watson's Guitar Album, Riding the Midnight Train, and Red Rocking Chair. I was as excited about those records as I was about anything else under the tree. I had started playing guitar a couple of years earlier, and outside of my dad, Doc was my first guitar hero (Tony Rice, Dan Crary, and others would come later).
A young Sutton meets his hero.
I was blessed to grow up in western North Carolina, an extremely musical part of the world. I knew that Doc Watson was from near Boone, up around Deep Gap, which I knew was relatively near where I lived. I was already enamored with Doc by then, so I had a certain pride knowing that he and I were from the same part of the world.
I got to see Doc live for the first time around 1984. He, along with Merle and T. Michael Coleman performed at a show in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. I was sitting just off stage right, about 30 feet from Doc, and it was my first experience of being totally starstruck. The experience was too awesome for words. I got to see him a few more times at the wonderful Fiddler's Grove festival, in Union Grove, North Carolina, by that point Jack Lawrence had been added to the line-up, and I got to meet Doc at one of these festivals. I used to record the shows on a little handheld tape recorder then go back to my campsite and learn everything. I remember working out many of Doc's phrases after these shows. I was never more inspired to learn and play than after these magical sets.
I've always thought Doc had a great speaking voice—I absolutely love to hear him talk. Ernest Tubb used to remind his audience, “If you'll be a good neighbor, you'll have good neighbors.” Doc's shows were kind of like ET's. After all the great picking, singing, storytelling, and plain chatter, I just felt better about the world. Doc brought his living room and front porch to every stage he played. He was much bigger than just an innovative guitarist; he embodied a certain character that represented everything I wanted to be. He was a real person, but a kind of mythological character at the same time. You got life lessons listening to Doc Watson play and talk.
My career kind of "took off" around 1995 after joining Ricky Skaggs’ Kentucky Thunder band, and the release of the album, Bluegrass Rules. It was quite a time to say the least. I'm a sentimental guy and don't take a lot of things for granted. The first time we played MerleFest, I was tearing up most of the set. I was on this stage I had seen many times from out front, my parents were out there, and Doc and Rosa Lee were on the side of the stage. It was too much.
I got to sort of know Doc through the late ’90s and early 2000s. There were various festival jams where he and I were on the stage together. I would sometimes go say hello when he was hanging out in his dressing room back stage at MerleFest. I never spent a huge amount of time with him, but I felt there was a connection. One of my most precious memories was at Merlefest where Jim Rouse, Doc's guide around the festival, took me aside and said that Doc and Rosa Lee really enjoyed a certain Randy Travis record where I had played some clawhammer banjo. Of all things in the world, she said my playing reminded her of Merle's. Rosa Lee wanted to try to arrange some time over the weekend to hear me play. That was also too much! It turns out I had a Friday night cabin set (The "tweener" set just off the main stage where performances occur while the big stage is being set up). I thought I would try to make this happen for Rosa Lee during that set. I asked Doc to sing and play and I would play the banjo. He agreed and it was a lovely experience. We played the old gospel standard, “The Unclouded Day.” A funny thing was, the cabin stage sits at an odd angle to anyone sitting on the Rosa Lee's side of the main stage, so we had to literally hang off the front of the cabin porch for her to be able to see the music.
A difficult thing for me as a "pro picker" is getting over that starstruck feeling I've always had around my heroes. It's a surreal kind of blessing to be able to call the folks I admire so much “friends.” It's still hard to be around most of the people I perform with and not remember all the times I listened, watched, admired, and studied them as a kid. I cherish every moment I ever spent with Doc. He and I won a prize for the recording of “Whiskey Before Breakfast" we did for my duets album. The best memory I have of that process was getting Doc from his hotel room, walking to and riding the elevator, and then walking to the room I had turned into a recording studio. It was just he and I, gabbing about various things, telling jokes, talking gear, etc. It was a great moment being one on one with a masterful guy.
Doc is not with us anymore in the physical sense. But his music and my memories are as strong as they ever were—maybe even stronger. When things in this world are considered past and gone, that usually means they're replaceable. Doc Watson can't be replaced so he'll never really be gone. He will always maintain a presence and just as strong an influence for me as ever. His footprint is too big in the world of music. He's secured a place in the pantheon of music legends like Bach, Django, Hendrix, and Monroe. These men and their music are eternal.
I'll miss not having the opportunity to see Doc play anymore. As a flatpicker though, I am forever connected to him, and all I have to do is pick up a guitar and feel him.