Doc Watson dies: Folk musician’s career spanned seven decades
By Terence McArdle,
Doc Watson, the blind folk singer and guitarist whose dazzling string work and homespun stage manner transported concert audiences to his rural home in the Blue Ridge Mountains, died Tuesday at a hospital in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.
His death was confirmed by a hospital spokeswoman and his management company. He had recently undergone abdominal surgery.
Mr. Watson was the founder of MerleFest, a traditional music event in Wilkesboro, N.C., and one of the largest annual folk festivals in the South. The festival was named for his son and frequent musical partner, Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in 1985.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Mr. Watson influenced such diverse musicians as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Clarence White of the Byrds, the innovative acoustic picker Leo Kottke and bluegrass multiinstrumentalist Ricky Skaggs.
“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and finger-picking guitar performance,” the late Ralph Rinzler, an influential folklorist who first recorded Mr. Watson in the early 1960s, once wrote. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”
Mr. Watson’s repertoire included country songs, blues and contemporary folk by writers including Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton. And he was musically adventurous, once even jamming on his flat-top folk guitar with the electric soul band Booker T. and the MGs during a 1996 performance at the Wolf Trap outdoor theater in Vienna.
He was best known, however, for his old-timey music — the fiddle tunes that he adapted for the guitar and traditional folk songs, such as “Shady Grove,” that had been passed down through oral tradition from their origins in the British Isles to the rural communities of the American South.
“His music is human, the vivid and simple songs carrying him and the listener to another time, another place,” critic Dana Andrew Jennings wrote in the New York Times in 1995. “When he sings a bluesy Jimmie Rodgers yodel, one feels the sting of the Great Depression and the solace Rodgers provided. When he sings a Carter Family song, one can see their Clinch Mountain home in Virginia.”
As a young guitarist, Mr. Watson was inspired by the records of Grady Martin, a renowned Nashville session musician who acquired a following in the late 1940s for his fast fingerwork on the electric guitar. Mr. Watson learned to play fast fiddle tunes on a Les Paul electric guitar and performed in a rockabilly and Western swing band in the 1950s.
In 1960, as part of his field work, Rinzler went to North Carolina to record Mr. Watson’s neighbor, the old-timey guitarist Clarence Ashley, with Mr. Watson as an accompanist, for Folkways Records. At Rinzler’s insistence, Mr. Watson reluctantly used a Martin folk guitar instead of his electric instrument. He never returned to the Les Paul.
Folkways released the album “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s” (1961). The recording helped create momentum for Mr. Watson’s old-time music. At folk festivals, Rinzler teamed him with Ashley, guitarist Clint Howard and fiddler Fred Price. Mr. Watson also performed as a soloist at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village — the club where Bob Dylan played some of his earliest engagements.
Beginning in 1964, Mr. Watson toured with his teenage son, Merle, on second guitar. The two men signed with Vanguard Records and produced such notable albums as “Doc Watson and Son” (1965) and “Southbound” (1966).
“Southbound” featured two contemporary songs that became Watson signatures — Jimmie Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud,” a modern-day cowboy ballad, and “Windy and Warm,” a somber instrumental earlier recorded by guitarist Chet Atkins.
The father-and-son duo performed all over the world, with Merle functioning as accompanist, caretaker and business manager. Although he left the singing to his father, Merle Watson was highly regarded by other country guitarists for his nimble finger-picking and, in later years, his Duane Allman-influenced slide work.
Demand for the duo increased after Mr. Watson’s appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” (1972). The hugely popular record matched the country rock band with several veterans of bluegrass and country music and is often credited with reviving interest in those styles.
During the “Circle” sessions, Mr. Watson met and performed with one of his boyhood idols, guitarist Merle Travis, for whom his son was named. Mr. Watson would later collaborate with Atkins, another of his early guitarist heroes, on the album “Reflections” (1980).
After his son’s death, at age 36, Mr. Watson briefly considered retirement and cut back on his work. He founded MerleFest in 1988.
His many awards included several Grammys, including a 2004 lifetime achievement award.
Arthel Lane Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Stoney Fork, N.C., the sixth of nine children in a poor farming family. He grew up in the town of Deep Gap.
“In real cold weather you’d wake up in the morning with frost on your pillow,” he once told People magazine. “When hard-blowin’ snow came, you had to go up in the attic to sweep up the snow and put it out through the shutter window.”
Mr. Watson lost his sight in infancy from an undiagnosed illness. His father made him his first instrument. (It incorporated the skin of a recently deceased family cat.) Besides involving him in music, his father also included his son in family chores.
“He realized I didn’t need to sit in a corner because I was visually handicapped,” Mr. Watson once said of his father. “He needed me and he knew I was strong and could do the work.”
Mr. Watson was enrolled at a school for the blind in Raleigh but quit before beginning seventh grade. He started playing guitar, busking on Raleigh street corners with an older brother.
At 17, he started performing with a string band on local radio. The announcer, who had trouble pronouncing Mr. Watson’s first name, dubbed him Doc Watson.
Survivors include his wife, Rose Lee Carlton; and a daughter, Nancy Watson.
Although Mr. Watson enjoyed being onstage, he did not relish the travel involved with music and often reflected on the path he might have taken if he had not lost his sight.
“I sure wouldn’t have gone on the road with the guitar,” he once said. “But a man’s got to do what he can do. When they let you in this world, they hand you a little box. It’s invisible, of course, and it’s got a few talents in it. And if somethin’ happens that you can’t lean on one, why you got two or three more you can get hold of.”