Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born in Stoney Fork Township, near Deep Gap, North Carolina on March 3, 1923. As an infant, Watson was left blind from an eye infection, but showed early musical talent, learning regional “mountain” music that would later influence his unprecedented flat-picking guitar style. His virtuoso guitar playing and deep baritone voice first earned him national attention during the folk music revival of the early 1960s. Watson was a folk pioneer and a major influence on generations of guitarists. He died at the age of 89 in 2012.
Legendary folk guitarist/singer Doc Watson was born Arthel Lane Watson in Stoney Fork Township, near Deep Gap, North Carolina on March 3, 1923. As an infant, he was left blind from an eye infection, but his parents encouraged him to rise above his disability. They also encouraged his musical talent – his father, General Dixon Watson, led the singing at the local church, and his mother, Annie, sang old-time ballads at home, and music quickly became part childhood.
Watson received his first musical instrument, a harmonica, as a Christmas gift at the age of 5 or 6, and later a fretless banjo given to him by his father when he was 11. Part of the Watson’s family lore is that his father made the head of that banjo from the skin of a recently deceased family cat.
His father continued to encourage his musical interests. After his father saw Watson playing a borrowed guitar, he promised to buy him one if he could teach himself a song in a day. Watson met his father’s musical challenge by playing the Carter Family’s "When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland" and he received his first guitar, a $12 Stella acoustic, at the age of 13. Watson immersed himself in music, learning songs he had heard on Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and by country pioneers like Jimmie Rodgers.
As a teenager, Watson took his music to the streets literally, performing with his brother Linney, on street corners in the nearby town of Boone, North Carolina, where in 2011 a life-size statue was erected in his honor. He received his nickname “Doc” when an audience member suggested it during a radio broadcast performance.
Watson's first national acclaim came during the folk music revival of the early 1960s. His performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 helped launch his solo career, and he released his debut album Doc Watson and Family that same year.
In 1964, Watson put his own family into the act when his 15-year-old son Merle joined him as a guitarist. Father and son performed together for 20 years, receiving Grammy Awards for their albums Then and Now (1974), Two Days in November (1975) and Big Sandy/Leather Britches (1980). They toured together until Merle’s death in 1985 after a tractor accident. After his son’s tragic death, Watson's return to music was bittersweet, winning Grammys for his albums Riding the Midnight Train (1987), On Praying Ground (1991) and Legacy (2003).
One of Watson’s most notable contributions to American music was his rapid-fire, flat-picking guitar style, which has influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists. Fellow folk pioneer Bob Dylan once compared Watson’s guitar picking style to “water running,” while the artist himself modestly called it “country pickin.”
Doc Watson died on May 29th, 2012 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, following complications from abdominal surgery. He was 89. In addition to his guitar mastery, Watson’s song interpretations and echoes of the Appalachian “mountain” music of his childhood captivated audiences around the world and across generations.
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