JOHNSON CITY, Tenn. (WJHL) – A longtime ETSU professor’s three-year project to produce a Doc Watson CD box set has netted him two Grammy Award nominations — the eighth and ninth of Ted Olson’s career.
Olson, a professor for ETSU’s Appalachian Studies and Bluegrass, Old-Time and Roots Music Studies programs, co-produced the four-CD box set that came out last year. “Doc Watson — Life’s Work: A Retrospective” features 101 songs from throughout the legendary guitarist’s decades-long career.
Olson told News Channel 11 Monday Watson, a native of Deep Gap, N.C. in Watauga County, was more of a “song stylist” than a songwriter.
“He was internationally renowned for his guitar stylings and his prowess on the American song bag, so to speak,” Olson said, referring to well-known traditional American tunes.
“People talk about his performance of American standards as kind of the ‘go to’ versions that everybody tried to emulate.”
Olson was nominated in the Best Album Notes category for what is essentially a book-length insert in the box set that cover’s the blind musician’s life in great detail. He’s also co-nominated with producers Scott Billington, Paul Blakemore and Mason Williams in the Best Historical Album category.
Olson has been nominated for seven previous Grammys, starting in 2011 with identical nominations (notes and best historical album) for “The Bristol Sessions, 1927-1928 — The Big Bang of Country Music.”
This year’s nominations mark his sixth for album notes and third for best historical album. He said each category has five nominees.
“This is from an international pool of entrants,” he said. “I’m not sure the number in my categories but I’m sure it was a couple hundred or more, so it’s an honor to be among the nominees.”
Peeling back the layers — A years’-long project
Olson said he was asked to create a Watson box set in early 2018. The task turned into a three-year project because Watson recorded on about a dozen different labels through the years.
“It was a licensing challenge to put it mildly to get permission to use all of those tracks,” Olson said.
Some of the labels were non-existent, including one that produced a Watson album that won him two Grammys in the early 1970s.
“The owner was an Irish magnate who no longer is on the scene,” Olson said. “Nobody could track him down, nobody could find out exactly who had purchased the ownership of that label. It took three years to obtain licensing, so that’s why it took three years to put it out.”
That legwork also gave Olson additional time to craft the lengthy notes on a man who would rise from being one of many talented Southern Appalachian pickers to become a national treasure.
Olson said Watson grew up in a musically talented family, so much so that a few songs the family recorded on a 1963 album made the box set.
“He was from one of those very talented Appalachian families where everybody played something and sang,” Olson said.
Included in the notes is extensive information about Watson’s time spent playing in Johnson City with a band fronted by Jack Williams.
“It was like a rockabilly band,” Olson said. “He played around Johnson City regularly for years and years, and then of course he came back every year to play at the Down Home.”
But Watson was talented, likeable and versatile, and his career blossomed. Olson said he was “a flawless interpreter of blues music.
“Being blind he was color blind. He was often noted as one of the great blues players of his era but he played Appalachian string band music, he played ballads — he could sing a ballad as well as anybody.”
Eventually, Watson carried enough influence to record whatever he chose. And Olson said his stylings ran the gamut.
“He was a traditional artist, a folk artist, but he called his music ‘traditional-plus.’ So basically his repertoire was comprised of traditional songs and tunes plus everything else he liked. So he gave himself license to record anything he wanted.
“One of his last recordings that’s on the box set that I put out was of Nights in White Satin by the Moody Blues. So he was adventurous to the end.”
Fans of Olson’s work can watch the 2023 Grammy Awards on Sunday, Feb. 5 to see if he and his colleagues win, but Olson said the nominations alone are an honor.
“This box set was a chance for me to commemorate a truly great Appalachian artist,” Olson said. “And it is gratifying that the Grammy nominations are reminding people far and wide of Watson’s profound impact on music nationally and internationally.”
Memories at The Down Home
Down Home co-owner Ed Snodderly remembered Watson’s visits, often on the Saturday before Christmas, fondly.
“It centered us when he came, centered us with his will, his fame, and his integrity and his personal boldness,” said Snodderly. “It calmed everyone down.”
Snodderly added that Watson’s performances drew crowds of all ages. Watson would take visitors in the back room at the Down Home prior to his performances.
“He would sort of hold court back there,” Snodderly said.
He knew how to keep a crowd under control too, Snodderly said. He recounted a time when Watson diffused a drunk teenager by saying, “I remember when I had my first beer.” The crowd was quiet after that.
“He knew how to be the teacher in the class. He was in charge.”
“He was a great performer,” Snodderly said. “We miss him.