By 1953, Doc had improved enough that he was able to play music professionally. He performed with a number of groups in towns such as Johnson City, Bristol, Kingsport, and Blowing Rock. The music he per formed was contemporary country music, the hit songs performed on the radio by the likes of Carl Smith, Hank Williams, and Kitty Wells. He learned many different styles on guitar, from the rapid-fire flatpicking of Alton Delmore to the thumbpick and finger style of Merle Travis.
In September, 1960, folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle, searching for folk musicians to record in the Blue Ridge Mountains, heard about Doc Watson through Clarence Tom Ashley, an old-time fiddler who had made records in the 1920s and 1930s When they finally met Watson at his home, Doc was holding a 1950s model Gold Top Gibson Les Paul electric guitar in his hands. Not exactly what you would expect from a mountain-style guitarist, but in short order, the folklorists found that they had discovered a musician who was not only uncommonly talented, but who was also a repository of American folk music. Encouraged by Rinzler and Earle, Watson returned to his roots, and joined Ashley, Clint Howard, and Fred Price to form a group for recording and for live performances. At the height of the urban folk music revival, Doc Watson instantaneously became an icon for the new school rediscovering America’s musical roots.
Doc Watson’s first albums were recorded for Folkways and included both the Ashley group as well as members of
Fred Price, Clint Howard & Doc Watson
Photo by David Gahr