Remembering Doc at MerleFest: Interview with Jack Lawrence

During his lifetime, Doc Watson seemed to be everywhere at MerleFest – appearing on every stage, sitting in with groups from far and wide, jamming with other musicians, cheering on other acts from the wings of the Watson Stage. More often than not, you’d find guitarist Jack Lawrence at his side. Jack toured with Doc for 25 years, and counted him among his closest friends.

One of Doc’s gifts to Jack was a broken down 1945 Martin D-18 that Doc used on some of his early Vanguard records. Lawrence restored the guitar and used it on several recordings with Doc, including “On Praying Ground,” which received the Grammy in 1990 for Best Traditional Folk Recording. The guitar bears the name “Arthel” which is Doc Watson’s actual first name. It’s featured on Jack’s latest CD, Arthel’s Guitar (2013). The album includes two bonus tracks of previously unreleased songs played by Doc Watson, T. Michael Coleman and Lawrence, including a Jack Lawrence original “Ten Miles to Deep Gap.”

Today, Jack Lawrence continues Doc’s MerleFest tradition, playing numerous sets on all four days of the festival with many different groups, among them lots of Watson’s old friends, as well as a host of younger musicians inspired by his legacy. For the 2015 edition of MerleFest, Lawrence has something special planned: a guitar tribute featuring some of the country’s best pickers, playing songs that Doc loved.

“I'm doing a Doc Watson Guitar Tribute set Saturday at MerleFest,” Lawrence said in an exclusive interview with “I'm excited to have The S.C. Broadcasters, Sam Bush, David Holt, Stephen Mougin, Tim Stafford, Roy Book Binder, T. Michael Coleman, Uwe Kruger, Jacob Burleson and my son, Adam Lawrence join me.

“We will explore some of Doc's influences and how he inspired us all. I spent over 25 years traveling, performing and recording with Doc so this is a very special set for me.”

Lawrence told us that Doc's vision of MerleFest as a "traditional plus" festival is still in place, perhaps even more so since his death. “Artist director, Steve Johnson, has done a fabulous job in making sure of that,” Jack said. “I like the fact that he has included more young, regional acts, like Mandolin Orange and Mipso from the Chapel Hill area. “

Lawrence says that the festival plays a vital role in the preservation and growth of roots and bluegrass music. “MerleFest is a living testament to Doc's legacy and insures that the next generation of musicians, including those playing there, are made aware of Doc's invaluable contribution to the music we love,” he said. “For me, it is also a terrific homecoming and a chance to hear and play music with the many friends I've made during my 45 year career.”

The Doc Watson Guitar Tribute is scheduled for Saturday, April 25 at 1:45 p.m. on the main Watson Stage. Jack Lawrence will also play a short solo set on Friday 11:30-11:45 a.m. as part of the Doc & Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase on the Austin Stage in Alumni Hall. The showcase features short performances by a number of other bright lights of bluegrass, including supergroup Sutton, Holt and Coleman, Joe Smothers (one of Jack Lawrence’s other partners from way back), and Bill Mize.

Jack Lawrence also will be part of the final act at MerleFest 2015. At 5:30 p.m. on Sunday, following Dwight Yoakam’s performance on the Watson Stage, Jack will join Bill Mathis and T. Michael Coleman on the adjacent Cabin Stage for a performance of “Southbound.” The song, first recorded by Doc and his son in 1966 for the album Southbound, was the first song written by Merle Watson and much loved by his father. While the trio plays, a video tribute to Doc and Merle will be shown on a big screen.

Chances are, “Southbound” will be followed by the 1935 folk classic “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” one of Doc’s favorite songs and the unofficial anthem of MerleFest.

MerleFest takes place April 23-26, 2015 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. Advance discounted tickets are available online through April 22. Visit the MerleFest website for complete schedules and ticket options.