A poem by Ron Rash, “Elegy for Merle Watson” (Poems: New and Selected, 2016), set off a slide show of memories:
“Nothing’s on the level in this terrain.
A tractor loses its balance quick as a heart.
One tractor wheel turns in the morning light,
One hand clutches the earth, trying to hold on.
`Wayfaring Stranger,’ `Deep River Blues,’
Those fatalistic mountain hymns became you.
“Tonight your father cradles his guitar.
A stage half-empty confirms what we don’t hear,
What does not echo, fills the runs and lines.
Musician, distant kin, your silence survives.”
I’ve been listening to Merle’s father, Doc Watson (1923-2012), for most of my life. His flat-picking style on the acoustic guitar, and bottomless catalog of country blues, hymns and ballads, made him a crowd-pleaser and a prime mover in the folk revival of the early nineteen-sixties. Watson had a fine, unaffected baritone that carried conviction, and it always puts me in mind of a long-gone America. Watson was a conduit for earlier strains of music, reanimating the work of Jimmie Rogers and “Mississippi” John Hurt. Often, listening to Doc was also to listen to Merle, a gifted guitarist born in 1949. They recorded twenty albums and performed together from the time Merle was fifteen.
In October 1985, I was working an early shift in the newsroom when an editor, also an admirer of the Watsons, told me Merle had been killed in a tractor accident on the family farm in Lenoir, N.C. He was thirty-six. One year earlier, while I was working for a newspaper in Indiana, the six-year-old son of a pressman was killed when the boy’s mother backed up a tractor and ran over him. At the funeral home, in the open casket, the boy in jacket and tie held a toy tractor, said to be his favorite. After Merle’s death, word got around that Doc was broken, as was the Indiana family, and might never perform again. I’ve written before about meeting Doc in 1988, and how the grip of his sadness briefly released when he remembered hearing Louis Armstrong on his father’s tube radio as a boy.