Doc Watson, country flatpicker, dies at 89

doc watson.jpg
Photo courtesy of Peter Figen.
He never had a chart-topping hit, but his guitar flat-picking and earnest, true-blue vocal take on traditional American music nonetheless influenced generations of country, blues and folk musicians and fans. Today we all mourn the passing of Doc Watson.

Watson notably played a sold-out show at the Cedar Cultural Center two years ago.

Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina on March 2, 1923, a mountain community where he lived 'til his death, Arthel Lane Watson was the sixth of nine children born to General Dixon Watson, a farmer and day laborer who led the singing at the local Baptist church, and his wife Annie. An eye infection took young Arthel's vision before the age of one, but his loving and musical family pushed him to learn how to take care of himself and encouraged him to pursue music early on - first the harmonica, then the banjo, and finally the guitar.

After spending time at Raleigh, North Carolina's School for the Blind, Watson became a professional musician, busking and playing for a local dance band. Making a radio appearance at nineteen, an announcer made fun of his name and suggested he needed a catchier one. "Call him Doc!" someone shouted from the audience - presumably a reference to the popular Sir Arthur Conan Doyle character - and the name stuck.

In 1960, Watson met Smithsonian Institution folklorist Ralph Rinzler at a North Carolina music festival, and it was then that he was swept up in the folk music craze of that decade, as well as the traditional music revivalism of the decade to follow it; he notably collaborated with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others on 1972's Will the Circle Be Unbroken.

Watson went on to win eight Grammy awards, a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, the National Medal of Arts, and founded the very popular MerleFest, a showcase of traditional acoustic music held each April in North Carolina to honor Watson's son and longtime collaborator, Merle, who died in a tractor accident at his farm in 1985.

Watson died yesterday in a Winston-Salem hospital after recently undergoing abdominal surgery. He was 89. On Thursday, his daughter Nancy Ellen Watson reported that Watson had been hospitalized after falling at his home in Deep Gap, adding that while he had not broken any bones, he was very ill.

The last few months have sadly seen the passing of both these giants: here's Doc Watson playing with Earl Scruggs and their sons at Watson's home.




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