Doc Watson, music legend and Watauga native, dies
by Anna Oakes
Watson would permit such adulation on one condition only: that his life-sized, meticulously sculpted likeness be accompanied by a five-word addendum. And so it is that folks remember him, Watauga County's most famous son: “Doc Watson: Just One of the People.”
Watson, a seven-time Grammy Award winner and recipient of the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, National Medal of Arts and National Heritage Fellowship, turned the roots music world on its head with his pioneering flat-picking and finger-picking guitar styles; and his soulful baritone renderings of blues, country, gospel and folk tunes have introduced countless people across the world to the music of Appalachia.
Watson died Tuesday, May 29, at the age of 89 at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem following abdominal surgery last week.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born in Stoney Fork near Deep Gap on March 3, 1923, and was a lifetime resident of the small Watauga County community. He was one of nine children born to musically inclined parents Annie Watson, who sang traditional secular and religious songs, and General Watson, who played the banjo. Watson grew up playing the harmonica and a homemade banjo fashioned from wood, metal and cat skin.
Watson furthered his musical education at home through a battery-powered radio and a small windup record player with a stack of 78 rpm records his father had purchased from a neighbor, including Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers, the Carolina Tar Heels and the Carter Family.
Watson couldn't see, with his eyes, the wonder and awe that spread across listeners' faces as they struggled to follow his rapidly moving fingers. Widespread accounts are that an eye infection caused him to go blind as an infant, but a family member said it was tainted silver nitrate dropped in his eyes by a midwife that caused his blindness.
In spite of being blind, Watson has led a self-sufficient life thanks in large part to his father, who taught him carpentry skills as a young teen.
“When you see with your hands and your ears it's different than when you can see with your eyes,” Watson said in a 2010 interview. “My dad used to tell me I could hear like a cat.”
While attending the School for the Blind in Raleigh, he heard a classmate playing a guitar and learned a few chords himself. At age 13, Watson taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar, and his proud father rewarded him with a $12 Stella.
To make payments on new guitars, Watson would play for tips at storefronts in nearby Lenoir and Boone. When Watson was 18, he joined a group that occasionally played on local radio stations, and before a remote radio broadcast at a furniture store, an announcer decided that “Arthel” was too cumbersome to use on the air. A woman in the crowd suggested, “Call him ‘Doc,'” and the name stuck.
Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947, and they had two children, Eddy Merle (named for Watson's idols, country stars Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) and Nancy Ellen.
Watson taught himself to play lead guitar using a flat pick instead of a thumb pick in the Carter Family tradition.
“I think most crucially, he virtually invented … playing fiddle tunes on the flat-top guitar. I don't know if anyone had done that before,” said Watson's manager, Mitch Greenhill. “That all came from his days playing square dances with a guy named Jack Williams. That band didn't have a fiddle, so Doc wound up playing those songs. He was playing electric guitar at that time.”
To this day, Watson receives much of the credit for the acoustic guitar's advancement to a lead instrument in bluegrass and traditional music bands.
Throughout his career, many were drawn to Watson's music because it offered a connection to the past, and to simpler times. It was the 1960s folk revival that vaulted Watson into fame; the musical movement was, at least in part, a forsaking of the glitz and glam of mid-century country and early rock ‘n' roll in favor of a more informal presentation.
“Most of the models he grew up listening to, in the ‘40 and ‘50s, were more razzle-dazzle, show biz. Being a blind guy from the hills, that wasn't available to Doc, or he didn't feel it was,” said Greenhill. “When a more informal performing world opened to him, that was a very comfortable place for him to be.”
In 1960, driven by the growing folk revival, folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Watson's neighbor Clarence Ashley and heard Watson in the process. These sessions resulted in Watson's first recordings, “Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley's.”
In 1961, the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Watson, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Watson delivered his first solo performance at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village. From then on, he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.
“I think that, most of the people, at least in the early days, us college-educated city folks, we felt we were getting a real direct connection to Appalachian culture,” remembered Greenhill. Greenhill's father, Manuel Greenhill, began managing Watson as part of Folklore Productions in 1964, about the time he recorded his first solo album. The relationship continued until Watson's death.
“‘Black Mountain Rag' on that first solo album stunned everybody,” Greenhill said. “One man and one guitar would tear the walls off that place … the fierceness and beauty of his playing.”
Watson may have served as an ambassador from Appalachia to the rest of the world, but he wasn't content to merely churn out identical reproductions of old tunes. Rather, he incorporated many different styles — from country to bluegrass to old-time to rockabilly to swing — and amended them to his liking.
“There's a bunch of people in every audience that loves all types of music,” Watson said in 2010. At one point Watson coined the term “traditional plus” to describe his musical tastes, and it's a slogan the music festival MerleFest has since adopted.
“No matter what he touched, whether it was guitar, banjo or harmonica — it always came out wonderfully musical. That's what brought people in,” said David Holt, Watson's long-time friend and fellow musician. “He knew which notes to leave in and which notes to leave out. He added his own touch to every style and every instrument that he played.”
In the late 1960s, Merle joined his father on the road. Merle played guitar and banjo and served as partner and driver, and the father-and-son team expanded its audience nationwide. After working for a while with the band Frosty Morn, they continued to tour with bassist T. Michael Coleman and brought their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of their recordings and collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band further cemented Watson's standing among the world's elite traditional musicians.
When Merle died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985, Watson only briefly stopped performing.
“It almost killed my wife Rosa Lee when we lost Merle,” Watson said, noting Rosa Lee later was hospitalized for heart surgery.
Shortly afterward, Watson resumed his recording and touring schedule with grandson Richard Watson and guitarist Jack Lawrence. Holt, who first met Watson in 1972, began performing with Watson full time in 1988.
“I lost a daughter in 1989 … in a car accident,” Holt said. “Doc was one of the first people here and very supportive because he knew what it meant to lose a child.”
The Merle Watson Memorial Festival (now MerleFest) was first held in Merle's honor in 1988. Today, the festival held in Wilkesboro is one of the premier traditional, bluegrass and Americana music festivals in the world.
During Watson's long career, he recorded more than 50 albums, many of which are still in print today. In 1997, when awarding the National Medal of Arts to Watson, President Bill Clinton said, “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.”
Watson is survived by his wife of nearly 66 years, Rosa Lee, and their daughter Nancy Ellen, as well as his grandchildren Richard Watson and Karen Watson Norris, several great-grandchildren, his brothers David and Linney, his sister Jewel and several nieces and nephews.
“Doc said that he really got into music to support his family and make a living. And that was always his bottom line. That helped him make a lot of decisions about what to do with his career,” Holt recalled. “He was always gratified by that. He loved performing, and he loved being able to support his family through his music.”
Despite rising to international fame, Watson was never tempted to leave his mountain home.
“I've been asked at least 20 times, ‘Why don't you move to Nashville, where everything's going on?'” Watson said. “I'm a country boy. I don't need to be in the city.”
And it wasn't solely Watson's blazing guitar picking and deep, soothing voice that brought millions of people to the stage. People came to see the man. Doc Watson was real, with no pretense and no stage act and no political agenda.
“I don't rehearse any show,” he said. “I just rehearse the songs every now and then.
Anyhow, I'm me when I'm on the stage. I'm myself. I don't have to put on any act. If you can be yourself, and people listen to you, and even enjoy some of the foolishness, you're lucky.”
Speaking the morning after Watson's death, Holt, like many across the world, expressed sorrow.
“I've lost a dear friend and mentor. And I know the world has lost a music legend,” Holt said. “There will never be another like him.”