When singer/guitarist Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away on May 29 at the age of 89, the world lost one of its last links to what journalist Greil Marcus famously dubbed, “The old, weird America” of traditional, pre-WWII folk music. Blind since infancy, Doc met the world with a quiet authority and a down-home kind of warmth that belied the stark, stoic image he struck onstage, seated and leaning intensely into a mix of country, bluegrass, gospel, blues, and old-timey folk. But his lightning-flash licks humbled several generations of folk, country and rock guitarists.
The man who sent six-string hotshots running for cover, earned an armload of Grammys, and received a National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton was born amid humble circumstances in Stoney Fork, N.C. on March 3, 1923 to a family that first homesteaded the area in the late 18th century. He grew up hearing old-time ballads from his mother, hymns in the local Baptist church, and 78s by the likes of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers. He learned harmonica at age six and banjo at 11, his father building him a banjo using the skin of little Arthel’s grandmother’s recently deceased cat. While attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind, he learned guitar at the age of 13, spurred by the influence of jazz — especially fleet-fingered Gypsy guitar demon Django Reinhardt — and The Grand Ole Opry. Early on, his move from Carter Family-style thumb-pick technique to standard flat-picking was crucial to forging Watson’s rapid-fire style. He played for tips at a Lenoir, N.C. cabstand in 1940 to pay off his first Martin guitar.
Watch Doc Watson perform “Deep River Blues”:
Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton in ’47, and their first child Eddy Merle Watson — who would eventually play a huge part in Doc’s career — arrived two years later. For most of the ‘50s Doc put food on the family table as lead (electric) guitarist for Western swing artist Jack “Tex” Williams. It was here that Watson’s style fully blossomed as he started adapting fiery fiddle tunes to the guitar.
Fate knocked at Doc’s door in 1960 when Alan Lomax-esque folk music archivists Eugene Earle and Ralph Rinzler came south to record Watson’s pal, semi-retired banjo player Clarence Ashley, who appeared on Harry Smith’s famous 1951 Anthology of American Folk Music. Ashley called in some cohorts for the session, including Watson, who made it onto the epochal Folkways release Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, Vol. 1. Days later, another session at the Watson family farm was arranged as well. In ’61, the folklorists brought Ashley, Watson and others to New York City for a concert hosted by the Friends of Old Time Music. The folk boom was really catching fire, with young folkies from Bob Dylan to Joan Baez just beginning their careers, and Watson was quickly embraced by folk audiences and artists alike. He became a fixture on the coffeehouse and folk festival circuit, hitting every hotspot from Folk City to the Newport Folk Festival.
Doc’s self-titled 1964 debut album for Vanguard Records became a milestone of American roots music, and an inspiration to one generation of folk-fueled artists after another. That same year, he began his musical partnership with then-15-year-old Merle, who had already become as imposing a fretmaster as his father. Over the next several years they cut a string of successful records for Vanguard that kept the duo at the top of the ‘60s folk scene. In 1972, Doc found renewed popularity when a fresh crop of players influenced by his music introduced him to a whole new audience. Folk-rock hitmakers the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band released Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a triple album that was basically the era’s equivalent to the O Brother, Where Art Thou? Soundtrack. The Dirt Band brought in a jaw-dropping guest list of American musical masters for the sessions, Watson, Roy Acuff, Maybelle Carter, and Merle Travis among them. The record became a phenomenon, introducing rock and pop fans to roots music and inspiring a whole new batch of future folk and country stars.
Watch Doc Watson, Merle Watson and Earl Scruggs play at the Watson home:
Doc and Merle remained an inseparable team until Merle’s fatal tractor accident in 1985. After his son’s death, Doc vowed to quit playing, but he had a dream the night before Merle’s funeral, in which his son pulled him from a pool of quicksand and encouraged him to keep the music moving forward. Doc followed that advice unfailingly for more than a quarter-century, establishing the annual Merlefest along the way. Inaugurated in 1988 to raise funds for a memorial garden honoring Merle, Merlefest started out with Watson and some special guests performing atop a couple of flatbed trucks. Today it’s one of the most successful, influential folk festivals in operation.
On May 24, 2012, Doc had colon surgery at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem. Five days later he was taken from us for good. But his spirit is still flat-picking up a storm deep inside the legions of guitarists who slowed down their turntables trying to pick up Watson’s supersonic licks; in the folk tradition he helped to burn into the pages of American musical history; and in a vast, genre- and generation-spanning array of artists from The Grateful Dead to The Meat Puppets to Gillian Welch, Will Oldham, and the next young upstart who takes a pick to an acoustic axe to pick out an American tune.