Many people wonder how it’s possible that Don Watson knows so many songs. As it turns out, he has been tested and diagnosed with an auralgraphic memory, meaning he can remember any jingle after hearing it just once.
The man can play at least 3,000 songs from memory – double that with the help of his Vail Valley Band – crossing all genres and several decades. He has been a regular on the Vail après stage since the 1980s but got his start as a kid playing the ukulele at a tiny ski area in Ohio in the early ‘60s. His younger brother had broken his leg and members of the family had to take turns keeping him company in the lodge. Watson took his ukulele when it was his turn and started strumming Bob Dylan and Peter, Paul and Mary hits. Before he knew it, skiers began putting money in front of him.
“I became a whiz kid on the ukulele and was performing with folk bands. At the ski hills in those days, people brought out banjos and violins. It was more of a bring-your-own-picnic-basket setup,” says Watson, who switched to guitar in high school and moved with his family to upstate New York, where he performed at the 1980 Olympics in Lake Placid. He made his way to Vail after a life-changing tip from famed guitarist Harry Chapin.
“I was opening for Harry Chapin and asked him ‘how can you make a career out of this?’ He said, ‘you have to pick up the phone
“Part of being a successful
professional is the ability to
create the energy time after
time and do it with a smile and
in a realist way. A good piece
of music gets tired, but the
people performing it don’t.”
and quit your day job,’” Watson recalls. So, in spite of having just become president of the insurance Brokers Association at the age of 22, he picked up the phone. Then made playing music his life.
Besides being Vail’s longest running après ski musician, Watson writes original music, often for famous artists, most recently for country singer Steve Azar. He wrote the opera “Come to the River,” performed at Gerald Ford Amphitheater and Denver’s Arvada Center. He has co-written songs and is close friends with Edwin McCain. He’s done comedy tours with the likes of Sinbad, A. Whitney Brown and Roseanne. He’s writing a play. And, oh yes, and he is also the head coach for Battle Mountain High School’s state title-winning fencing team.
In spite of these many hats, Watson is first and foremost an après ski singer. “I like being an artist, but I make my living getting up in front of people and saying, ‘hey, what would you like to do?’
As a singer, my ‘north star’ is to get a sing-a-long going,” he says.
Over the last 40 years Watson has ignited sing-a-longs at just about every venue in Vail, those that are still around and many long gone. He and the Vail Valley Band – comprised of percussionist/singer and former Broadway star Beth Swearingen, mandolinist/guitarist/ singer Dave Anderson and bass player Peter Fontanese – have been performing together for 15 years.
“We never work with a set list,” Watson says. “That would be like carrying around a phone book. ”We play real-time Dixieland. We have no idea what’s going to happen. Part of being a successful professional is the ability to create the energy time after time and do it with a smile and in a realist way. A good piece of music gets tired, but the people performing it don’t.
Watson and the Vail Valley Band’s unrelenting energy has earned them gigs around the world – playing New Year’s Eve at Sidney Opera House, in Budapest, London, playing Red Rocks with Michael Murphy and the Colorado Symphony.
This February you can catch them performing at the 2015 World Alpine Ski Championships or any Sunday night at Route 6 Café. They’re also regulars at the Arrabelle, Blue Plate Bistro and Ritz-Carlton residences. Bring your requests.
“It’s a wonderful thing to be an après ski singer,” Watson says. “I’m blessed to be able to do it.”