- Joe Kendrick
In May of 1989, Doc Watson was 66 years old. He was known around the world, and had already cemented his legacy, but was nowhere near the end of his achievements. With four Grammy awards under his belt, he had four more to go. He had yet to be inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall Of Honor, and was probably not anticipating that the National Medal Of Arts would be awarded to him in the coming decade. One of his great contributions to the music world had begun just the year before: the event which was born out of the tragedy of losing his son, MerleFest.
It was a time when more people were awaking to and actively participating in the culture that Doc Watson knew in his youth. Although he had been at the forefront of the folk music boom in the early 1960s, which was itself an exercise in national self-rediscovery, that music was largely ignored by the Baby Boomer generation. By the time the late 1980s rolled around, there was still a core of roots music adherents, but their numbers likely had been waning since The Beatles arrived.
Enter Taylor Barnhill and Sheila Kay Adams, then his wife. Taylor, an architect, and Sheila, an old-time performer and lover of mountain tales, took on a project to preserve and reinvigorate oral traditions of the Southern Appalachians: a live radio show they called Over Home. They had no experience being on the radio or with producing live events, outside of Sheila’s budding music career. But they had more than enough heart to make up for it, and a willing partner in a soon-to-be public radio station with a signal covering parts of six states, WNCW.
In this episode of Southern Songs and Stories, we bring you a one-of-a-kind performance from Doc Watson. Instead of playing music, Doc tells stories. You probably know that Arthel “Doc” Watson often told stories in between songs at his performances, but this is a whole show’s worth. He opens up even more than usual, with tales from his own family’s history; stories that will make you laugh, and one especially that is pretty chilling. These are stories that give you a glimpse into the world that Doc was born into almost a century ago, a world that was then not so different from the time a century before it when many of these tales took place. And maybe best of all, they are stories which give us a bit more understanding of Doc himself.
You’ll hear from Over Home producer Taylor Barnhill about his remarkable live series as well as we journey back to Doc’s performance on May 27th, 1989, on the campus of Isothermal Community College in Spindale, NC. All this has been lying dormant for more than three decades, until now.
Thanks for visiting Southern Songs and Stories, and I hope you might tell a friend about the podcast. You can subscribe to this series on your podcast platform of choice, and it helps even more when you give it a good rating and a review. Great ratings, and reviews especially, will make Southern Songs and Stories and the artists it profiles more visible to more people just like you. And it helps to spread awareness and make more people connected when you like and follow the show on our social media — you can find those accounts linked on their icons in the masthead above. Southern Songs and Stories is a part of the podcast lineup of both public radio WNCW and Osiris Media, with all of the Osiris shows available at https://www.osirispod.com/ . You can also hear new episodes of this podcast on Bluegrass Planet Radio at https://www.bluegrassplanetradio.com/. Thanks to Corrie Askew for producing the radio adaptations of this series on public radio WNCW. Our theme songs are by Joshua Meng. This is Southern Songs and Stories: the music of the South and the artists who make it. – Joe Kendrick