“Doc and Merle Watson“
Live, at The Cellar Door
with “Lazy River”
I was in the group Lazy River. It was the mid 70’s, in Washington, DC. I played bass and sang harmony, joining Denny Robey, guitar player-singer songwriter (who I met in college in NC, he at Guilford, me at Wake Forest) and John Redgate (a recently graduated music major at Georgetown, another fine guitar player). We had gotten together a couple of years before, doing “the music” of the time, you know, CSN&Y, Jackson Browne, the Eagles. Good stuff. About a third of our songs were original, mostly written by Denny. Also good stuff. We were doing really well, in a town pumped with lots of great music and fueled by the political fires of the time. When we added talented pianist Fair Merriman (later Fair Robey) our 2nd, and her rich female vocal (we then had great 4-part harmonies) , we kinda went over the top. We were picked to open for a full week for Doc and Merle at one of the hottest music clubs in DC, the Cellar Door. We were thrilled. But as I recollect, more for performing at the Cellar Door, than opening for these two “Old Timey” musicians. Oh, we basically respected them, don’t get me wrong. We were picked to open for them largely because (except for my electric bass) we were “acoustic” like Doc and Merle, and mainly guitar based, but also different enough to add some variety to the evening. But we didn’t really know a whole lot about them. And I for one, thought their music was kind of “simple”. Well, it was time for guitar class.
We opened for ’em. We done good, as they say. And we got to hear them after our spot. Why not, great club, we were well received, I’ll just bask in it, I thought. So up come the two North Carolina mountain men, with their guitars. And they started playing together, father and son. I am glad there were no flies in the Cellar, cause my mouth was surely wide open. Whoa. And I thought I played guitar (I fancied I was coming along pretty good on it for a bass player). I was maybe in junior high on the guitar. These guys had Masters. Or better. Remember that line by Lovin’ Spoonful in “Nashville Cats”, “play clean as country water”? Well, that was Doc and Merle. Clean, clear, righteous, and right on. I had never heard the likes. I was impressed to say the least. I stayed every night the rest of the week. It was Tuesday through Saturday, I think. Sunday was the Hoot (Hootenaney) at the Door, which we won and how we got there, Monday closed. So along comes Saturday, and we wrapped it up. A very fine week, the Cellar Door was happy. But we had never talked to Doc and Merle. Then the manager says, “They would like you to come up to their room. And bring your instruments.”
I was glad at that point I was the bass player. “John Paul, you play guitar?” “Oh, no, not me, y’all go ahead.” I knew now why they called him Doc. PhD in guitar. I looked over at Denny and John, our guitar players. They were just smiling like two idiots (blessedly semi-sloshed). Fair was safe, she was a piano player, and we couldn’t haul it up the stairs anyway. So up we went to the hang-out the club had for the main acts. There were Doc and Merle, sittin’ on a couple chairs, pickin’ their geet-ars and drinking beer. Well, good. We started to feel at home. Then they made us really feel at home. First they offered us beer (they had a fairly big cooler on the floor), which I know all us guys took em’ up on. They shook our hands and thanked us for opening for them, said they liked our music and performance and felt it worked well with what they did. We all traded some personal stuff, and then we started playing. There was no bass amp, so me and Fair just sang. Denny played some of his originals, which me and Fair sang harmonies on, and she shone on some vocals (I remember they really liked her voice). Doc and Merle would add embelishments to Denny’s songs, really fine, and tasteful. Then father and son would take off with their special blend of old-time, traditonal, country, bluegrass and whatever else they mixed in, and John (the best guitarist in our bunch) would try to keep up. He did well, and Doc and Merle were never short on complimenting him. Or any of us. Me and Fair, Denny and his original songs. And it felt real, just real. By the end of the evening, I knew the meaning of “Down Home”. And God-given talent that is humbly given and shared. Doc and Merle were not only exceptional musicians, but people as well. They shook our hands again all around, and we helped them carry their stuff out to their car. It was an old Buick or Pontiac big boat-looking thing, you know the ones from that era. We helped them pile their bags, guitars, and beer cooler in the back seat. Waving to us out the window, off they went, across the Potomac river. It was well after midnight. I remember thinking, why would they leave here so late, why not just stay the night? I know now why. Doc and Merle were not city guys. Across the Potomac was Virginia. Closer to the mountains of North Carolina. And home.
Have a blessed journey Home, Doc.
My friends and I opened for Doc and Merle many years ago. And what happened was this. Doc was blind, and my eyes were opened. Even more so, my ears, and heart, by one of the finest musicians and gentle-man this nation has produced. Sam Bush described his music as what personifies the genre Americana the best. Doc and Merle described their music themselves as Traditional Plus. To me, Doc is Americana Plus. He is America Plus.
I have had no greater honor in my musical experience, and likely never will, than to have opened for and jammed with Doc Watson and his late son Merle. Rest in ever music lovin’ Peace, Doc. And Merle. God bless you both, and all you gave us.
Humbly and Sincerely, John Paul McNeil
ps- My favorite song of his is “Tennessee Stud”. Doc was not only a great guitar player, he had a rich baritone voice as deep as the Deep River he sang about, and as real as he was.