Grammy Award winner and influential folk music artist Doc Watson died Tuesday, at the age of 89, due to complications from abdominal surgery. Watson had been a patient at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in North Carolina since May 21, following a fall at his residence in Deep Gap.
Born on March 3, 1923, to Annie Greene and General Dixon Watson, Arthel Lane Watson’s early life was saturated with the sounds of music. His mother often sung folksy songs while finishing her daily housework and put her children to bed with a song in the evening. The Watson family often attended church, where young Doc was first enchanted by the sounds of hymns and choir bells. At the family home, country music poured out of an old wind-up Victrola, enabling Doc to envision the sounds of his own future ballads. At age six he received his first harmonica, and at age eleven his father presented him with a cat-skin fretless banjo. Doc’s first two instruments fostered in him a lifelong love of music and gave him faith in his immense talents.
Unfortunately, Watson was befallen by hardship early in life. Even before he turned one year old, a debilitating eye infection caused him to lose sight in both of his eyes. Up until 7th grade, Watson attended the Governor Morehead School for the Blind. After completing 7th grade, he left school to work with his father. Dixon Watson taught him to be comfortable with his disability and put him at the end of a crosscut saw, in addition to his other duties on the farm. Doc’s father respected the way Doc worked and helped him buy his first guitar, a twelve dollar Stella.
From that point forward, Watson’s career focused mainly on the guitar. He paid off his first big guitar purchase by playing for tips in Lenoir, North Carolina. His renown grew locally, and he often received invites to play at local shows. At one of these shows he was given the nickname Doc.
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In between all of his local appearances, he managed to find time to fall in love. In 1947, Doc Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton, and they would stay married for the rest of his life.
After his marriage, and the birth of his two children (Eddy Merle in 1949 and Nancy Ellen in 1951), Watson’s career began to blossom. Watson performed at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and the nation took notice of his skill and precision on the guitar. That same year he released his first album, Doc Watson and Family. The album garnered a positive reception and also benefited from a nationwide endearment with folk, country, and bluegrass music that had just begun to percolate.
As Watson’s nationwide appeal grew, he was expected to go on tour. This proved difficult for a blind man, and Watson was thrilled when his son Merle joined his tour on rhythm guitar in 1964, at the age of 15. The partnership lasted 20 years, and produced three Grammy Awards but was tragically cut short when Merle died in a tractor accident. Shortly after Merle’s death, Doc Watson organized an annual musical festival, MerleFest, in his honor. In the past several years, Doc and his grandson, Richard, had performed at the event.
In his later life, despite the emergence of pop music, Watson continued to pile up awards and accolades. He added four Grammys (to bring his total to seven), was bestowed the National Medal of Arts by President Clinton in 1997, and received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. Perhaps best known for his innovative style of flatpicking, Doc Watson will be remembered as an icon in the folk music community.