Known to the world as the blind flattop guitar player who played with the speed of a Flamenco player –– died in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Tuesday, May 29, 2012 at the age of 89. Watson’s musical genre has been called bluegrass, folk, and Americana. Doc took the guitar out of the background and put it out in the front of the band. Many of the modern day pickers owe their success to the legend of Doc Watson.
Watson’s grandson Richard, who played with Watson, said that his Grandfather’s playing often intimidated and humbled other players. Young singers on television reality shows frequently hear to make the song their own; but Doc Watson always made every song his own. Nashville guitar player Pete Huffinger said of Watson, “Doc Watson made every song his own, regardless of ist age. When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it – it’s Doc Watson.”
Born Arthel Lane Watson on March 3, 1923 in the Blue Ridge North Carolina town of Deep Gap, Watson became blind while still a baby as a result of an eye infection. One of nine children, he grew up in a musical family – his Dad sang in the church choir and played banjo; while his Mother sang. Watson’s first instrument was the harmonica; from there he moved on to the banjo and then the guitar. With a little help from his father, Watson purchased his first guitar for $12. He spent over 70 years playing the instrument.
Speaking on his love of music, Watson once said, “my real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music. “I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar.” Though he played on street corners with his brother Linney for tips, Watson’s musical career began as the lead electric guitar player in a Country Western band in 1953; from there he went on to record dozens of albums. The name “Doc” arose when after someone couldn’t pronounce his name and a helpful fan yelled out to call him doc.
During his career Doc Watson played with his son Merle, grandson Richard, earned seven Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, and the National Medal of the Arts in 1997. Watson created “MerleFest” to honour his son Merle who died in a tractor accident. The festival – held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina – raises money for the local Community College.
When he wasn’t out touring and “making a living”, Doc could be found at home working on the family home including re-shingling the roof and building the utility shed.
Watson never saw himself as a big time picker, just a humble country boy. When a statue of the picker was erected in Boone, North Carolina he said that he didn’t want to be put on a pedestal, he was just one of the ordinary people.
Doc Watson is survived by his wife of over 65 years Rosa Lee, brother David, daughter Nancy Ellen two grandchildren including fellow picker Richard, and a number of great grandchildren.