Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson died on May 29, 2012 at the age of 89. Among the most influential guitarists of any era, Watson was a multi-instrumentalist and singer who explored and enriched many genres of music, while drawing from his family’s deep old-time tradition.
Watson was a native of Watauga County, North Carolina, a region of the state long celebrated for its traditions of instrumental music, balladry, and storytelling. His parents, General Dixon and Annie Watson, were highly musical. General played the banjo, and was a song leader in church. Annie was an outstanding singer of ballads and sacred songs. Doc’s brother Arnold was a banjo player, and brother R. J. was a singer who would become a song leader like their father, at Mount Paran Baptist Church in Deep Gap. The extended Watson family also included very talented traditional artists, including their cousin Willard, who danced and played the banjo.
In the summer of 1934, when Watson was eleven years old, his father got him started playing the banjo. General had made the banjo himself, with an important contribution from the family’s lately-departed cat. Arthel had played a bit of harmonica previously, sometimes accompanying himself on barn-door diddley bow, but this was the first instrument he played seriously. Given his family heritage it was probably inevitable that Watson would become a musician, but his father also believed that playing an instrument “might help [him] get through the world.” Arthel had been blind since infancy. In a 1988 interview with NPR’s Terry Gross, he said, “I don’t remember hardly what it was like, learning the first tunes. It was kind of hard for Dad to show me because I couldn’t see his hands. But he finally got across to me how to do the licks on the banjo and how to note the thing.” A couple of years later, he further impressed his father by learning to play “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar over the course of one day. (He had previously learned some chords from his friend Paul Montgomery, who was a fellow student at the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh.) General helped his son buy a Stella guitar a few days later, and, as Tony Russell wrote in the Manchester Guardian, “No investment in a young musician ever paid such dividends.”
Initially playing in a thumb-lead Carter style with a thumb pick, Watson soon figured out that Jimmie Rodgers, whose records he was studying, played with a “straight pick.” He tried it, and found that flat picking gave him greater facility with the Carters’ music, as well as the other styles he was playing. When Watson was about 17, Richard Green, who owned a music store in Boone, offered him a Martin D-28 with the understanding that Watson would pay for it over the course of a year. (“I couldn’t beat that with a stick,” he told NPR’s Terry Gross years later.) Earning money busking in the streets and at a cab stand in Lenoir, North Carolina, he paid for the guitar in just a few months. He played at fiddlers’ conventions and other events, with musical friends who included Clarence “Tom” Ashley. Watson was playing on a radio show with his friend Paul Greer, broadcasting from a furniture store in Lenoir, when the show’s announcer suggested that Arthel wasn’t a good name for radio. A member of the audience called out the suggestion that he be called Doc, and the name took hold.
In 1947 Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton, a talented singer who was also a member of a highly musical family. Her father was fiddler and banjo player Gaither Carlton, with whom Watson had sometimes played and would eventually record. The young couple settled down, and Watson worked for a time tuning pianos. In 1953 he joined Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a band for which he played electric guitar. In the absence of a fiddler, the duty of leading what would otherwise be fiddle tunes fell to Doc. His eight years with Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen gave him the opportunity to hone his personal style of intricate melodic flat-picking.
In 1960, Tom Ashley asked Watson to be part of a band he was assembling for a recording session with folklorist Ralph Rinzler and music collector Eugene Earle. Though initially dubious of Watson’s plan to play electric guitar for the recordings, Rinzler soon recognized that in Watson he had encountered a truly exceptional traditional musician. Visiting and recording the extended Carlton-Watson family followed. Rinzler and Earle carried the recordings to record companies, and found an appreciative reception from Moses Asch at Folkways, which issued Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, Vols. 1 and 2, and The Watson Family.
Traveling to New York in 1961, Watson, Fred Price, Clarence Ashley, and Clint Howard played a concert organized by Rinzler, John Cohen, and Israel Young for the Friends of Old Time Music. Rinzler later wrote of that day, “The rented, 450-seat auditorium of a Greenwich Village public school was sold out. Backstage, a few minutes after the final applause, two invitations were extended to the group: The University of Chicago Folk Festival . . . and the Ash Grove.” For the group, and for Watson individually, this was the beginning of a new career playing for folk revival audiences around the country and abroad. Watson played for the Newport Folk Festival, Gerdes Folk City, and many other influential folk revival venues. In 1964, Vanguard issued Doc Watson, his first solo album.
While Doc was touring, Rosa Lee Watson was back home in North Carolina with their children Merle and Nancy. In 1964 she taught Merle to play some guitar chords, and within three months, he was performing with his father. Merle had been playing for less than a year when they recorded their first album together, Doc Watson & Son, for Vanguard. He developed a distinctive style that complimented his father's, and though he was very much part of his family’s musical lineage, Merle became a distinctive and creative musician whose playing strongly reflected his individual tastes. He particularly loved the music of blues guitarist John Hurt, with whom he and Doc became friends on the folk festival circuit, and his own playing had a strong blues influence. When Merle finished high school, he began to tour with his father full-time. They made many albums and won two Grammy Awards together.
In 1971, Doc Watson was invited to be on a recording project with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Released in 1972, Will the Circle Be Unbroken brought together musicians of disparate styles and generations, in what proved to be a landmark event in country-crossover music. In addition to Watson, Earl Scruggs, Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, and Norman Blake appeared on the album—along with still more country and bluegrass artists. The recording gave a significant boost to Watson’s career, and he and Merle, often with T. Michael Coleman on bass, spent a great deal of time on tour in the following years.
In 1985, at the age of 36, Merle Watson died in a tractor accident. Doc’s grief was profound, and in the days immediately following the death he decided to quit his music career. The night before the funeral, though, he experienced a dream that changed his mind. He dreamed that he was in a desert, being swallowed by hot sand, but then felt himself pulled out of danger; at the same time, he heard a voice encouraging him to “keep going.” Watson went back on the road a few days later, accompanied by guitarist Jack Lawrence, with whom he and Merle had been playing in recent years. He suggested years later that had he not gone back to touring so soon, his grief would have prevented him from returning to music at all. The dream, he told NPR, was “God-sent.”
Doc Watson lived for another 27 years after Merle’s death, and never fully retired. He toured regularly with Lawrence, and also played often with David Holt, and with his grandson Richard Watson, Merle’s son. Many honors were conferred on the musician who, over the course of his career, played on more than 50 recordings, won seven Grammy Awards, and influenced generations of musicians across a vast spectrum of American musical styles. He received the National Endowment for the Arts’ National Heritage Fellowship in 1988. That same year, MerleFest was established in Merle Watson’s honor at Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. In 1994, Doc Watson received the North Carolina Heritage Award. In 1997, President Clinton presented him with the National Medal of Arts. The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences recognized him with a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
Arthel “Doc” Watson is survived by Rosa Lee Carlton Watson and their daughter Nancy, their grandchildren and great-grandchildren, and his brothers David and Linney and sister Jewel.