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Folk Artist & Guitarist Doc Watson Dies At 89

Doc Watson

Doc Watson at MerleFest in 2011. Photo courtesy of McDonough Media.

Legendary folk artist Doc Watson died Tuesday in Winston-Salem at the age of 89, reports the New York Times. Doc passed away in the hospital after a recent abdominal surgery. According to the Associated Press, Doc was hospitalized on Thursday after falling at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina.

Doc came into the national spotlight during the folk music revival of the early 1960s. In his baritone voice, he sang old hymns, ballads and country blues he learned growing up in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, a region which has turned out fiddlers, banjo players and folk singers for generations. Unlike most country and bluegrass artists who used guitar as a secondary instrument, Doc played flashy, rapid-fire melodies normally played by a fiddle or banjo.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Stoney Fork, North Carolina on March 3, 1923, Doc was the sixth of nine children. His father, General Dixon Watson, was a farmer who led the singing at the local Baptist church while his mother, Annie, sang while doing chores and lulled her children to sleep at night.

He was an infant when an eye infection left him blind. He attended the Raleigh School for the Blind for a few years and his music training began in early childhood. He received his first harmonica at Christmas when he was 5 or 6 and at age 11, his father made him a fretless banjo with a head made from the skin of a family cat that had just died. He dropped out of school in seventh grade and began working with his father, who helped him thrive in spite of his disability.

“I would not have been worth the salt that went in my bread if my dad hadn’t put me at the end of a crosscut saw to show me that there was not a reason in the world that I couldn’t pull my own weight and help to do my part in some of the hard work,” he told Frets magazine in 1979.

By then, Doc had moved from the banjo to a borrowed guitar. His father promised to buy him his own guitar if he could teach himself a song by the end of the day so Doc had learned the Carter Family’s “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland.” His father bought him a $12 Stella guitar a week later.

He went on to pay for a new Martin guitar on an installation plan by playing for tips at a cab stand in Lenoir, North Carolina and soon he was playing at amateur contests and fiddlers’ conventions. As he prepared to play a radio show, the announcer decided he needed a snappier name. A woman yelled out ‘Doc’ and the name stuck for the remainder of his career. He married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947 and the couple’s first child, Merle, began performing with his father in 1964. Their partnership produced 20 albums before Merle died in a tractor accident in 1965.

Doc began playing electric guitar with Jack Williams and the Country Gentleman in 1953, learning to play the fiddle parts to make up for the band’s missing player. In 1960, he was part of a group put together by Mr. Rinzler, a folklorist, and Clarence Ashley for a recording session. Mr. Rinzler was impressed by Doc and went to his family home to record him playing with family members. A year later, Doc, Clarence and several other musicians played a concert at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village which led to more appearances and a solo career for Doc. His recordings in the 1960s are considered classics.

Waning interest in folk music slowed his career in the late 1960s. In 1972, he was a part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band collaboration album Will the Circle Be Unbroken and the album’s success bought him a fresh wave of popularity. He started touring with his son Merle shortly afterward and the pair remained on the road until Merle’s death. Doc returned to touring a week after Merle’s funeral, saying his son had came to him in a dream and urged him to carry on. In his son’s honor, he helped found Merlefest, an annual music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Doc went on to win GRAMMYs for his albums Riding the Midnight Train, On Praying Ground and Legacy. He played well into old age, winning a Grammy for best country instrumental on “Whiskey Before Breakfast” with guitarist Bryan Sutton. His grandson Richard often joined him on guitar during live performances.

President Bill Clinton presented Doc with the National Medal of Arts at the White House in 1997. Doc is survived by his wife, his daughter, Nancy Ellen, a brother, David, two grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

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