Doc Watson, 1923–2012

Arthel "Doc" Watson, one of America's greatest musical treasures, has died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at the age of 89. A seven-time Grammy Award winner, Watson was known for his rich, unaffected singing voice, his apparently limitless repertoire of Appalachian folk songs, and a flatpicking guitar style that influenced a great many of his peers and inspired countless others to take up the instrument.

Born to a farming family in Wilkes County, North Carolina, Watson was blinded by an eye infection during his infancy, and later attended the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, where he learned Braille. In later years, Watson claimed to have learned even more about self sufficiency from his father, who put him to work on a crosscut saw, alongside his brother, Linny. Thus did Watson earn the money he needed for his first guitar, on which he showed remarkable proficiency from the start. Busking, solo engagements, and work as an electric guitarist in a dance band followed, and by the time he married his beloved Rosa Lee in 1947, Doc Watson was dividing his professional time between performing as a musician and working as a piano tuner for a local music store.

In 1960, Doc Watson was discovered by the late musicologist Ralph Rinzler, who worked tirelessly to promote Watson's performing and recording career. Watson's first, all-acoustic albums, on Vanguard Records, sold well, buoyed by well-received appearances at such folk venues at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, Gerde's Folk City in New York, and the Newport Folk Festival. Soon after, Watson's son Merle began touring with him as a backing guitarist. Their popularity dipped as the initial folk craze of the early 1960s began to wane, but Doc's career was revived when he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's enduringly popular 1972 album, Will the Circle Be Unbroken. (For years, Doc Watson expressed lingering resentment that Merle Watson had not been invited to the sessions.) Following that success, the father-son team remained a popular live act until 1985, when Merle died in a farming accident. Doc Watson carried on with a new touring partner, the talented guitarist Jack Lawrence, who stayed in the act for over two decades.

Although his touring and recording activities had slowed in recent years, Doc Watson continued to perform at select venues, particularly at Merlefest: a popular annual folk festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina that was established to honor the memory of Merle Watson, and where I took the photo above. In the spring of 2011, his wife, Rosa Lee, entered a nursing home, and Doc's own health began to decline. Following a fall at his home in mid-May, Doc was hospitalized and discovered to be suffering from colon cancer; he died after surgery on May 29, and is survived by his wife and a daughter, Nancy Ellen Watson.

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Paul Luscusk's picture
It's been a bad year for Bluegrass

First Earl, and now Doc. I'm glad I got to see Doc live twice with Merle, and once with Jack. RIP Doc.

john abramson's picture
doc and ralph rinzler

we owe the popular emergence of doc to ralph rinzler, who, prior to his smithsonian institute gig, was the first mandolin player for the well known blue grass group, the greenbriar boys, a leading group in the late '50s and early '60s folk music rennaisance. ralph died some time ago. the band in the sky keeps on growing,.

rosiemax's picture
I "got "them deep river blues

a I'll" have" em till I die.

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