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WXPN’s Folk Show host Gene Shay remembers the legendary Doc Watson

Photo by Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos via New York Times

“Doc was one of the most precise players I ever heard and saw.” WXPN’s Folk Show host and founder of the Philadelphia Folk Festival Gene Shay is reminiscing about the guitarist and folk singer Doc Watson, who died today at the age of 89. Watson, blind since birth, died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, having recently underwent abdominal surgery. “The most extraordinary thing about Watson’s playing,” recalls Shay, “was his quickness, how clean he would play, yet it was always filled with emotion and feeling. Whenever you watched Doc play, you always knew that he was taking every second of music and would do things that no other guitarist could do.”

“I got to know Doc Watson in a lot of unusual and memorable ways,” continues Shay, about the iconic Watson, founder of Merlefest and winner of numerous Grammy Awards. “He used to come by my radio show,” Shay continues, “when I was on the air on WHAT back in 1963 and 1964. Even though he played acoustic guitar, he would come by the station and was really fascinated with all the electronics and how things worked in the studio. I still remember when I met him for the first time. It was when he did a concert in Roosevelt, New Jersey during a Friends of Old Time Radio concert. Over the years we continued to always get together when he came through town, whether it was at the old Main Point or the Second Fret. There was an incredible local folk and blues scene back in the Sixties in Philly where I used to organize a lot of hootenannies. I remember once when he played he was seriously thinking about quitting doing music but he met this local guitarist named Jerry Ricks who Doc became really good friends with. Ricks was working at the Second Fret at the time and they developed a long term relationship that led to Doc sticking with the music. One of my favorite memories back in the day was when Doc Watson wanted to go searching for a socket wrench because Dave Bromberg told Doc that one of the guitarists from the Allman Brothers used a socket wrench to play slide guitar. So, there I was with Doc and his son Merle in town, and I drove them to a Sears in Radnor (Pennsylvania) where he tried to get fitted for a socket wrench. Doc was always a naturally curious fellow,” says Shay, “and obviously quite influential on so many incredible musicians over the years.”

Watson played the Philadelphia Folk Festival several times over the festival’s 51 years. He played in 2007 on the festival main stage and in April, 2011, Watson performed at the festival’s 50th anniversary fund raiser with David Holt. Below, watch several videos of Doc Watson from the several of those shows.