The story of Doc Watson, the man many consider to be the finest flatpick acoustic guitarist alive, has more than its share of dramatic moments, but a good one to start with dates from Labor Day weekend in 1960. It was in the waning months of Eisenhower’s presidency, and John F. Kennedy and Richard Nixon were coming down to the wire in a hard-fought election campaign. Kids all over the East were dancing to a new fad called “The Twist,” and country fans were listening to Cowboy Copas’s nifty flatpicking on “Alabam’.” Up north in Boston and New York, the folk music revival was in full swing, and while most young fans were content to listen to Joan Baez and the Kingston Trio, a few were trying to hunt up some of the veteran performers who had first recorded many of the old songs in the 1920s. One of these young fans was a college student named Ralph Rinzler, and one of the veterans he had found was Clarence Tom Ashley, who had recorded songs like “The Coo Coo” in 1928. Somewhat reluctantly, Ashley had agreed to let Rinzler make some new tapes of his singing, and on this Labor Day, Rinzler, accompanied by his record collector pal Gene Earle, found himself driving into the Appalachians toward the hamlet of Shouns, Tennessee, just a few miles from the North Carolina line. There Tom Ashley was to meet them, with a band he would collect.
They finally arrived at Ashley’s house, and the older singer introduced them to the man most people in the area considered “the best guitar picker around,” a tall, good-looking, thirty-seven-year-old blind man named Doc Watson. Ashley had decided that he didn’t want to play himself on the new tapes, but that Doc would be great. When Doc got out his instrument, Rinzler and Earle looked at each other. It was a Fender solid-body electric with a Woody Woodpecker decal stuck on the front: not exactly a staple in folk revival circles. Rinzler was taken aback, and said he hadn’t come all that way to record the legendary Tom