It took Watson decades to make a name for himself outside the world of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Once he did, he ignited the imaginations of countless guitar players who learned the possibilities of the instrument from the humble picker who never quite went out of style. From the folk revival of the 1960s to the Americana movement of the 21st century, Watson remained a constant source of inspiration and a treasured touchstone before his death Tuesday at age 89.
Blind from the age of 1, Watson was left to listen to the world around him and it was as if he heard things differently from others. Though he knew how to play the banjo and harmonica from an early age, he came to favor the guitar. His flat-picking style helped translate the fiddle- and mandolin-dominated music of his forebears for an audience of younger listeners who were open to the tales that had echoed off the mountains for generations, and to the new lead role for the guitar.
“Overall, Doc will be remembered as one of America’s greatest folk musicians. I would say he’s one of America’s greatest musicians,” said David Holt, a longtime friend and collaborator who compared Watson to Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters and Earl Scruggs.
Like those pioneering players, Watson took a regional sound and made it into something larger, a piece of American culture that reverberates for decades after the notes are first played.
“He had a great way of presenting traditional songs and making them accessible to a modern audience,” Holt said. “Not just accessible, but truly engaging.”
Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he was hospitalized recently after falling at his home in Deep Gap, 100 miles (160 kilometers) northwest of Charlotte. He underwent abdominal surgery while in the hospital and had been in critical condition for several days.
Touched and toughened by tragedy several times in life, Watson had proven his mettle repeatedly. Singer Ricky Skaggs called Watson “an old ancient warrior.”
“He prepared all of us to carry this on,” Skaggs said. “He knew he wouldn’t last forever. He did his best to carry the old mountain sounds to this generation.”
Watson’s simple, unadorned voice conveyed an unexpected amount of emotion, but it was his guitar playing that always amazed – and intimidated. Countless guitarists have tried to emulate Watson’s renditions of songs such as “Tennessee Stud,” ‘‘Shady Grove” and “Deep River Blues.”
Mandolin player Sam Bush remembers feeling that way when he first sat down next to “the godfather of all flatpickers” in 1974.
“But Doc puts you at ease about that kind of stuff,” Bush said. “I never met a more generous kind of musician. He is more about the musical communication than showing off with hot licks. ... He seems to always know what notes to play. They’re always the perfect notes. He helped me learn the space between the notes is as valuable as the ones you play.”
Arthel “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923, and lost his eyesight when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named for his late son Merle.
He came from a musical family. His father was active in the church choir and played banjo and his mother sang secular and religious songs, according to a statement from Folklore Productions, his management company since 1964.
Watson learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.
“My real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music,” Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the website. “I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar.”
The wavy-haired Watson got his musical start in 1953, playing electric lead guitar in a country-and-western swing band. His road to fame began in 1960 when Ralph Rinzler, a musician who also managed Bill Monroe, discovered Watson in North Carolina. That led Watson to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his first recording contract a year later. He went on to record 60 albums, and wowed fans ranging from ‘60s hippies to those who loved traditional country and folk music.
Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger of Nashville, Tenn., said Watson made every song his own, regardless of its age.
“He’s one of those lucky guys,” said Huttlinger, who studied Watson’s methods when he first picked up a guitar. “When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it – it’s Doc Watson.”
Merle began recording and touring with him in 1964. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started MerleFest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, that raises money for a community college there and celebrates “traditional plus” music.
“When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the festival’s website. “Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional plus.’“
Watson never let his blindness hold him back musically or at home. He rose from playing for tips to starring at Carnegie Hall.
And he was just as proficient at home. Joe Newberry, a musician and spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, remembered once when his wife called the Watson home. Rosa Lee Watson, Watson’s wife since 1947, said her husband was on the roof, replacing shingles. His daughter Nancy Watson said her father built the family’s utility shed.
It’s that same kind of self-sufficiency that once led him to refuse his government disability check.
“He basically started making enough money performing – couple of hundred dollars a week,” Holt said. “So he went to the services for the blind and said he was making enough money to support his family and they should take what they were giving him and give it to somebody who needed it more.”
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, North Carolina. At Watson’s request the inscription read, “Just One of the People,” echoing a statement he’d once made to Holt about how he’d like to be remembered.
“Just as a good ol’ down-to-earth boy that didn’t think he was perfect and that loved music,” Watson said. “And I’d like to leave quite a few friends behind and I hope I will. Other than that, I don’t want nobody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I’m just one of the people ... just me.”