Just how beloved is Doc Watson, the 84-year-old legend of acoustic guitar? When the Deep Gap, N.C., native stepped before the audience in Overture Hall Saturday night, he was greeted by a long, loud ovation that saw many people rise to their feet before the man had played a note.
Leading him out -- he is blind -- was the folklorist and fellow North Carolinian David Holt. The two settled into chairs on the undecorated stage, and then they performed a joyful set of Watson's trademark mix of country, folk and blues. Holt played clawhammer banjo and National steel guitar as Watson flat-picked dazzlingly, and sang in his wondrously expressive baritone voice.
Watson was a seminal figure in the folk revival of the early 1960s, and many fans came to know him from Will the Circle Be Unbroken, the 1972 Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album that featured Nashville legends like Roy Acuff and Mother Maybelle Carter. Watson began Saturday's concert with a song he performed on that album, the rollicking "Way Downtown."
The pair also played ancient country songs by the likes of the North Carolina Tar Heels and Fiddlin' John Carson, as well as "Deep River Blues," which Watson said he heard Merle Travis play on the radio in 1939. Watson had a humble stage presence, but between songs, Holt drew him out with questions about his childhood and his early recording career.
"I believe tonight we're pickin' for the sake of pickin'," Watson said halfway through the first set, to laughter.
A marvelous collaboration came when the two put down their stringed instruments. Watson removed a harmonica from his pocket and played a bouncy version of "There's No Place Like Home," and Holt did a lively turn on the percussive bones as Watson played "Fisher's Hornpipe," then "Cripple Creek."
Following intermission, Watson performed a few songs by himself, including the Elizabeth Cotten classic "Freight Train." After he played a soaring version of the gospel song "Stand By Me," he was joined by grandson Richard Watson, whose father, the late Merle Watson, was Doc's longtime sideman.
The two played several bluesy songs, like Jimmie Rodgers' "T for Texas," and then they were joined by Holt for the finale, which included a rendition of the fiddle tune "Down Yonder."
At one moment in the second half, Watson fumbled through his pockets in search of his capo -- or "cheater," as he called it. "I've got a right to forget things," he said by way of explanation. "I'm 84." The audience rewarded that remark with still another ovation.