RIP Doc Watson

The music world yet lost another legend this evening with the passing of guitar virtuoso Doc Watson, who was 89. The eight-time Grammy winner died shortly after 7:00 p.m. (EDT) at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC after undergoing surgery for an impacted colon last week. He had initially been hospitalized after a fall.

Doc was humble, and about as laid back as they came. But when he attacked his custom-made Gallagher guitar with a flat pick, he ruled the stage. His self-taught style and the work of the late Clarence White paved the way for Tony Rice, Jim Hurst and other super pickers of today.

How good was Doc? Dan Miller, in a superb profile in the September-October 1998 issue of Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, called him “the man who had the deepest, most enduring and most profound influence on the way the acoustic flat top guitar is played as a lead instrument in folk, old-time, and bluegrass music today.”

Doc also had a comfortable, smooth baritone voice.

Arthel Lane Watson was born in North Carolina in 1923 and spent nearly all of his life in Deep Gap. An infection left him blind before his first birthday – a fact that makes his musicianship all the more remarkable. But his father taught him early on that the lack of sight was an inconvenience, not a disability.

He played the banjo as a child and became familiar with the music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers from recordings played on his family’s wind-up Victrola. He gained a broader exposure to music when, at the age of 10, he started attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C.

That’s when he switched to playing guitar. Just as countless budding guitarists improved and perfected their technique by playing along with Doc – or at least trying to – Doc learned by playing along with Jimmie Rodgers’ records.

Doc picked up his nickname for life during an early live radio performance, when an announcer decided he should be called something other than Arthel. “Call him Doc,” yelled a woman who clearly was a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson.

He started his musical career in 1953, playing electric guitar with Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a western swing band. He switched to acoustic guitar in 1960 and went on to play with Bill Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs and other bluegrass stars over the years.

Recordings of performances with Monroe were prized bootlegs until Smithsonian Folkways released them in 1993 as Bill Monroe and Doc Watson: Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980.

But Doc is perhaps best known for performances and recordings with his son, Merle, and for his work on the legendary 1972 Will the Circle Be Unbroken album.

He toured and played with his son from 1964 to 1985, when Merle was killed in a tractor accident. Three years later, Doc organized a tribute concert, which has turned into the annual MerleFest in North-Wilkesboro near his home.

Doc, as usual, played a bit at this year’s festival.

Then-President Bill Clinton presented Doc with a National Medal of Arts in 1997, and he was inducted into IBMA’s hall of honor in 2000.

Bluegrass Today readers who want to know more about Doc and his music can check out the 2010 biography, Blind But Now I See, by Kent Gustavson. Or grab a CD and a good set of headphones, close your eyes and enjoy the clear, clean picking of a master.

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About the Author

David Morris

David Morris, an award-winning songwriter and journalist, has written for Bluegrass Today since its inception. He joined its predecessor, The Bluegrass Blog, in 2010. His 40-year career in journalism included more than 13 years with The Associated Press, a stint as chief White House correspondent for Bloomberg News, and several top editing jobs in Washington, D.C. He is a life member of IBMA and the DC Bluegrass Union. He and co-writers won the bluegrass category in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest at MerleFest in 2015.