Wednesday, 30 May 2012

Guitar picking master Doc Watson has died at 89

Guitar picking master Doc Watson has died at 89

Doc Watson, the blind folk musician whose mountain-rooted sound was embraced by generations and whose lightning-fast flatpicking influenced guitarists around the world, died Tuesday (May 29, 2012) at a North Carolina hospital, according to the Associated Press. He was 89.
Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he was hospitalized recently after falling at his home in Deep Gap, 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. He underwent abdominal surgery while in the hospital and had been in critical condition for several days. His family were called to his bedside on Sunday, he did rally a bit but remained critical.
Doc Watson performing in New York in 2005.
Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos

Arthel "Doc" Watson was born March 3, 1923, and lost his eyesight when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named for his late son Merle.

Doc Watson came from a musical family. His father was active in the church choir and played banjo and his mother sang secular and religious songs, according to a statement from Folklore Productions, his management company since 1964.
Watson learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.

"My real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music," Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the website. "I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar."

The wavy-haired Watson got his musical start in 1953, playing electric lead guitar in a country-and-western swing band. His road to fame began in 1960 when Ralph Rinzler, a musician who also managed Bill Monroe, discovered Watson in North Carolina. That led Watson to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his first recording contract a year later. He went on to record 60 albums, and wowed fans ranging from '60s hippies to those who loved traditional country and folk music.

According to the Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson took his nickname at age 19 when someone couldn’t pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted “Call him Doc!”

Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson,” Clinton said at the time.

In 1947 Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of a local fiddler. The couple’s first child, Merle, took up the guitar and began performing with his father in 1964. Their partnership, which produced 20 albums. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident in Lenoir, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C., that raises money for a community college there and celebrates "traditional plus" music.

"When Merle and I started out we called our music 'traditional plus,' meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play," Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the festival's website. "Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is 'traditional plus.'"

You could hear the mountains of North Carolina in Doc Watson's music. The rush of a mountain stream, the steady creak of a mule in leather harness plowing rows in topsoil and the echoes of ancient sounds made by a vanishing people were an intrinsic part of the folk musician's powerful, homespun sound.

It took Watson decades to make a name for himself outside the world of Deep Gap, N.C. Once he did, he ignited the imaginations of countless guitar players who learned the possibilities of the instrument from the humble picker who never quite went out of style. From the folk revival of the 1960s to the Americana movement of the 21st century, Watson remained a constant source of inspiration and a treasured touchstone before his death on Tuesday.

Blind from the age of 1, Watson was left to listen to the world around him and it was as if he heard things differently from others. Though he knew how to play the banjo and harmonica from an early age, he came to favor the guitar. His flat-picking style helped translate the fiddle- and mandolin-dominated music of his forebears for an audience of younger listeners who were open to the tales that had echoed off the mountains for generations, and to the new lead role for the guitar.

"Overall, Doc will be remembered as one of America's greatest folk musicians. I would say he's one of America's greatest musicians," said David Holt, a longtime friend and collaborator who compared Watson to Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters and Earl Scruggs.
Doc Watson performs at the 2009 New Orleans
 Jazz & Heritage Festival
May 1, 2009.

Like those pioneering players, Watson took a regional sound and made it into something larger, a piece of American culture that reverberates for decades after the notes are first played.

"He had a great way of presenting traditional songs and making them accessible to a modern audience," Holt said. "Not just accessible, but truly engaging."

Touched and toughened by tragedy several times in life, Watson had proven his mettle repeatedly.
Singer Ricky Skaggs called Watson "an old ancient warrior."
"He prepared all of us to carry this on," Skaggs said. "He knew he wouldn't last forever. He did his best to carry the old mountain sounds to this generation."

Watson's simple, unadorned voice conveyed an unexpected amount of emotion, but it was his guitar playing that always amazed — and intimidated. Countless guitarists have tried to emulate Watson's renditions of songs such as "Tennessee Stud," ''Shady Grove" and "Deep River Blues."

Mandolin player Sam Bush remembers feeling that way when he first sat down next to "the godfather of all flatpickers" in 1974.

"But Doc puts you at ease about that kind of stuff," Bush said. "I never met a more generous kind of musician. He is more about the musical communication than showing off with hot licks. ... He seems to always know what notes to play. They're always the perfect notes. He helped me learn the space between the notes is as valuable as the ones you play."

Doc Watson Statue
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C. At Watson's request the inscription read, "Just One of the People," echoing a statement he'd once made to Holt about how he'd like to be remembered.

"Just as a good ol' down-to-earth boy that didn't think he was perfect and that loved music," Watson said. "And I'd like to leave quite a few friends behind and I hope I will. Other than that, I don't want nobody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I'm just one of the people ... just me."
The statue, a brainchild of John Cooper of The Mast General Store was installed and unveiled on Friday, June 24th, 2011. (Read more and see photos at )

Mr. Watson is survived by his wife; his daughter, Nancy Ellen; a brother, David; two grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

SOURCES – Associated Press,, NY Times, Facebook

PHOTO - The Statue of with flowers in honour of the memory of Doc Watson on King Street in Downtown Boone, North Carolina - Image

Ricky Skaggs - "An old ancient warrior has gone home. He prepared all of us to carry this on. He knew he wouldn't last forever. He did his best to carry the old mountain sounds to this generation."  (Press Statement)

The MerleFest family:  offers its most sincere condolences to the family and friends of Doc Watson: beloved husband, father, grandfather, great grandfather, friend and musician.  His impact on music and culture will be felt accross the globe for generations.
(MerleFest was founded in 1988 in Memory of Eddy Merle Watson as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College and to celebrate "traditional plus" music)

Sam Bush: “I don’t think anyone personifies what we call Americana more than Doc Watson.”

Matraca Berg - “Our beloved Doc Watson has left this realm. Merle is waiting will miss you sweet man. so hard to think Doc and Earl Scruggs not with us...” (Facebook)

Steve Martin - "Ouch. The great bluegrass legend Doc Watson is gone. Check out the song Tennessee Stud to get his essence." (Twitter)

Rosanne Cash lamented -  "To lose Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm and Doc Watson in one year is just too, too much" (Twitter)

Chely Wright -  "Rest in peace".  (Twitter)

A Page Feature on Doc Watson at the  New York Times


Doc Watson & Earl Scruggs play At Doc's Home, vintage footage that was not available to the public for over 30 years >> YouTube

Doc Watson solo in 1991 Performing "Deep River Blue"s >> YouTube

David Holt and Doc Watson perform the song "Shady Grove” on December 5, 1998 at the Valborg Theatre on the campus of Appalacian State University >>  YouTube 

Doc Watson Sculpture
(Facebook Image)

Interview March 2011 with John Cooper (Downtown Boone Development Association) on The Doc Watson Sculpture. “We just thought it was a wonderful idea to have a tribute to him downtown where he really got his start." John Cooper -


a) Fresh Air Remembers Traditional Music Legend Doc Watson (interview was originally broadcast on March 24, 1988)  -

b) Doc Watson Mountain Stage performance
which was originally published Oct. 11, 2010.
Even at 87 years old, no one can pick like Watson, who runs through a string of his most-loved and recognizable material. He's accompanied by David Holt on banjo and Mountain Stage bassist Steve Hill.

More Doc Watson Audio at NPR Radio  

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