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Published: 2012/05/30

Doc Watson (1923-2012)

Photo by Peter Figen

Flatpicking guitar legend Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson died on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, NC. A master of both the flatpicking and fingerstyle guitar styles, Watson was a seven-time Grammy-award winner who had a profound influence in traditional, folk and bluegrass music. He was 89.

According to reports, Watson died in a North Carolina hospital after undergoing abdominal surgery. His ailing condition was revealed last week when he was hospitalized after suffering a fall at his home in Deep Gap, NC.

As a child in Deep Gap, NC, Watson was struck by an illness that restricted bloodflow to his eyes, resulting in his blindness at an early age. He first picked up the guitar at the age of 13, after being introduced to the instrument by his cousin. Shortly after, he and his older brother Linney began busking on street corners, singing traditional numbers.

Watson got his start performing in front of larger audiences in 1953 when he met local piano player Jack Williams and began playing gigs for money. While he performed rockabilly/swing style music in Williams’ band, he also joined up with his neighbor Clarence “Tom” Ashley on the side where he continued to play acoustic traditional music. In 1960, during the time of the growing folk revival, Watson appeared on his first set of recordings with Ashley, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s.

Four years later, Watson recorded his first solo album, Doc Watson & Family. That same year, Watson also began performing alongside his son Merle on second guitar. Doc and Merle performed together for years, becoming one of the most popular performers on the folk and traditional music circuit. In 1985, Merle tragically died in a tractor accident on his home farm, causing Doc to retire from performing for a number of years.

However, Watson eventually made a comeback supported by guitarist Jack Lawrence and bassist T. Michael Coleman, who he had played with since 1974. In recent years, Watson scaled back his touring schedule and was generally joined onstage by his grandson Richard, as well as longtime musical partners David Holt or Jack Lawrence. In 1988, Watson founded the annual music festival Merlefest as a tribute to his son.

Watson helped change the role of acoustic guitar in folk and bluegrass music when he began learning to play the lead fiddle and banjo lines on guitar. This technique went on to influence countless musicians and can be heard on his rendition of “Black Mountain Rag” and his classic pickin’ tune “Doc’s Guitar.”

Throughout his career, Watson won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. In 1997, Watson received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. president Bill Clinton, and, in 2000, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Owensboro, Kentucky.

Watson is survived by his wife of nearly sixty-six years, Rosa Lee Carlton Wayson, and their daughter Nancy Ellen, as well as his grandchildren Richard Watson and Karen Watson Norris, several great-grandchildren, and his brother David Watson.

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