Doc Watson, Legendary Flatpicking Guitarist, Is Dead At 89
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, the legendary folk musician whose mountain sound was embraced around the world and whose distinctive style of flatpicking influenced guitarists in many genres, died May 29, 2012 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina at age 89.
Watson had a big impact on bluegrass musicians, many of whom were first introduced to Appalachian acoustic music by his recordings. He performed at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass, the Strawberry Music Festival, and at many other festivals and concerts in Northern California. Early in his career, he made important performances at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. He recorded the 1997 album “Doc & Dawg” with the Bay Area’s David Grisman.
Doc lived most of his life in the small mountain community of Deep Gap, NC, where he was born and made his living as a repairman and piano tuner when he was not making music. An eye infection caused Watson to lose his sight before his first birthday.
His music career began locally, but took him to Johnson City, TN in 1953 as a member of an electric country band. By 1960, the folk revival had brought Watson back to acoustic guitar and banjo, which led to a nationally-touring solo career that was assisted by Ralph Rinzler. His collaboration with his son Merle Watson begin in 1964. Following Merle’s death in a 1985 farm accident, Doc announced his retirement from the road, a blow to his loyal California fans.
However, he returned to music with the establishment of Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC in 1987. Watson hosted the annual festival as a tribute to his son. He also began a limited touring schedule with fellow guitarist Jack Lawrence.
Watson won 7 Grammy Awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and numerous other honors, including the 1997 National Medal Of Arts award from President Bill Clinton.
In September, 2000 Doc received two big honors on the same day. He became a member of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s Hall Of Fame at the IBMA convention in Louisville, KY and the main road in Deep Gap was named for him. He choose to personally accept the honor from his neighbors, rather than the international honor, on that day.
He is survived by his wife and early musical partner Rosa Lee Watson, for whom he asked the audience to pray at his last Merlefest performance one month before his death.