Bloomberg News

Doc Watson, Pioneering Folk Guitarist, Singer, Dies at 89

May 30, 2012

Doc Watson, a singer and guitarist who expanded the instrument’s role in traditional American music and influenced generations of musicians with his playing skills, died yesterday. He was 89.

Watson passed at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, said Marguerite Beck, a hospital spokeswoman. He underwent colon surgery there after a fall earlier this month.

Watson, blinded by an eye infection before his first birthday, rose to prominence during a 1960s folk-music revival. His style of flatpicking, or plucking a guitar’s strings with a pick rather than his fingers, transformed the acoustic guitar into a lead instrument in folk, country and bluegrass songs.

“The respect musicians have for him is amazing,” T. Michael Coleman, who played bass with him for 15 years, told the Washington Post in 2008. “People like Paul Simon, even, they’d be so nervous” when encountering Watson, Coleman said.

Watson won seven Grammy Awards, starting in 1973. The last one came in 2006, for his recording of “Whiskey Before Breakfast” with bluegrass guitarist Bryan Sutton.

The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, which sponsors the Grammys, presented him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He received the National Medal of Arts, the U.S. government’s highest honor for artists, in 1997.

Mountain Roots

Arthel Lane Watson was born on March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in the western part of the state along the Blue Ridge Mountains. Sources including the Birthplace of Country Music Alliance say he was born on March 2, 1923, and Ancestry.com lists his first name as Orthel. He was the sixth child of General Dixon Watson and Annie Green, according to the North Carolina History Project.

Watson’s parents sparked his interest in music. His father played banjo and led the singing at a Baptist church, while his mother sang traditional and gospel songs in their house.

The harmonica, which he learned at about age 6, was his first instrument. He graduated to the banjo at about 11, when his father made him one. At 13, a classmate at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina, taught him to play guitar.

At first, Watson adopted the so-called thumb lead style of Maybelle Carter, the matriarch of the Carter Family, who began making country records in the 1920s. After learning to use a thumb pick, he turned to flatpicking in order to play Jimmie Rodgers songs.

‘Call Him Doc’

Watson got his nickname as a teenager when he played at a local furniture store. The show was broadcast on radio, and the announcer didn’t want to refer to him by his first name. “Call him Doc,” a woman in the audience said.

Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of a fiddler who lived nearby, became his wife in 1947, according to the website of Folklore Productions International, which represents Watson. The couple had a son -- Eddy Merle, who was later known by his middle name -- in 1949 and a daughter, Nancy Ellen, two years later.

To support his family, Watson tuned pianos. He didn’t become a professional musician until 1953, when he was hired as the lead guitarist for Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a country and western swing band.

Watson learned to perform fiddle tunes on the guitar so that his band, which usually lacked a fiddler, could do square- dance music.

First Recording

When he wasn’t working, he played traditional music with family and friends. One friend, guitarist and banjoist Clarence Ashley, enlisted him for a recording session that musicologists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle arranged in 1960.

“Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s,” the resulting album, marked Watson’s first appearance on record, according to Folklore Productions. After its release, he went to New York with Ashley and some friends for a concert sponsored by the Friends of Old-Time Music, a group that included Rinzler.

Watson returned to New York in 1962 for a solo show and played the next two years at the Newport Folk Festival. “Doc Watson & Family,” an album of songs that Rinzler recorded after the Ashley sessions, was released in 1963. He was signed to Vanguard Records the following year.

Merle Watson started accompanying his father in 1964, only months after learning the guitar, and toured full time with him. They made about 20 albums together before Merle died in a 1985 tractor accident on the Watson farm.

Country Revival

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band included Doc Watson on “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” a 1972 album of traditional songs that the country-rock band played with country and bluegrass stars. Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs, Chet Atkins and Ricky Skaggs were among his other collaborators over the years.

Starting in 1988, Watson hosted a traditional-music festival that commemorated his son. The annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival, or Merlefest, featured performances with Merle’s son, Richard, and was held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

To contact the reporter on this story: David Wilson in New York at dwilson@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Charles W. Stevens at cstevens@bloomberg.net


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