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Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born on March 3, 1923, in Stony Fork, North Carolina, in the Blue Ridge Mountains, but his music is as influential now – more than a decade after his 2012 death – as at any time during his long career. During that time he was arguably America’s most beloved folk musician. Today, Watson is viewed by artists and fans as one of the greatest guitarists of American roots music.
Making music came naturally to Watson, who grew up in a large music-loving family. Recordings made in people’s homes by folklorists during the early 1960s documented music gatherings featuring various Watsons alongside neighbors and friends, collectively celebrating their community’s musical culture – a shared repertoire of Appalachian ballads, songs and tunes.
Watson is widely credited with popularizing the guitar style known as flatpicking, a rapid-fire approach to playing notes and chords on guitar strings by use of a plectrum, or guitar pick. Virtually all guitar players who have used a pick over the past six decades have labeled Watson a pioneer of that style. These include roots music masters like Clarence White, Norman Blake and Tony Rice; newer bluegrass stars like Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle; and guitarists in other genres, like Bob Dylan, Ry Cooder and Stephen Stills.
Watson was also an accomplished practitioner of fingerpicking, a guitar style involving plucking strings with the thumb and one or more fingertips using fingerpicks or fingernails. Watson’s agile and rhythmically intricate two-finger approach with fingerpicks is widely considered to be the apogee of the style.
From Appalachia to the folk revival circuit
Though remembered as a guitarist, Watson initially played other instruments.
The harmonica preoccupied Watson until he was 11, when his father made a maplewood fretless banjo for him and taught him basic techniques. Two years later, Watson’s father bought him a US$12 Stella guitar. Watson loved the instrument and practiced constantly. He eventually purchased a Martin guitar on a payment plan and took to playing on the streets of Boone, North Carolina – a town about 10 miles away from the Watson home – to pay for it.
Traveling to Boone and, in subsequent years, to more distant locales was no easy feat for Watson because an eye infection in infancy had left him permanently blind. But Watson did not allow blindness to limit him. During the Great Depression, Watson’s father encouraged him to do his share of household chores, including cutting firewood.
At the age of 23, Watson married his neighbor Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of fiddler Gaither Carlton, and the union brought two children, Eddy Merle Watson and Nancy Ellen Watson. To support his family, Watson did odd jobs including tuning pianos and played music on the street. In the early 1950s he joined a Johnson City, Tennessee-based country band, which required that he play an electric guitar. When this band played at square dances, Watson would play fiddle tunes on his Gibson Les Paul Goldtop with a flatpick.
This blind musician with a strictly local reputation might never have entered the national folk music spotlight without serendipitous intervention. In September 1960, musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler arrived in the Blue Ridge from New York City to document old-time music in informal recording sessions. These sessions were led by Clarence “Tom” Ashley, a journeyman country musician known for “The Coo-Coo Bird,” his 1929 recording made in Johnson City and incorporated onto Folkways Records’ influential 1952 multi-LP set “Anthology of American Folk Music.” When Rinzler asked about nearby musicians to include in the sessions, Ashley recommended Watson.
Upon meeting Watson, Rinzler was baffled because Watson brought his electric guitar to an acoustic jam session. Watson had been playing electric guitar and didn’t own an acoustic guitar at the time. He had to borrow an acoustic guitar for the session. Rinzler’s recordings were released on a 1961 Folkways album, and Watson was soon recognized as a generational talent. Playing acoustic guitars exclusively, Watson toured the folk revival circuit, publicly showcasing his broad and deep repertoire and his unparalleled instrumental technique and tone.
Watson initially toured the U.S. as part of old-time ensembles headlined by Ashley, but it was Watson who received the lion’s share of the attention. He wowed audiences with his musical skills as a vocalist as well as an instrumentalist and delivered entertaining anecdotes, reflections and good-natured quips. Before long, his management booked gigs nationally for Watson as a solo act, including an appearance at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
While Watson had previously played a broad range of music – commercial country, blues, rockabilly, pop, jazz and Broadway – his management initially encouraged him to perform music associated with the rural culture of Appalachia. But as Watson expanded his on-stage repertoire in defiance of the perception that folk revival audiences only wanted to hear “authentic” folk music, no one complained. Indeed, his fan base steadily increased.
Watson recognized that any sustained success he might achieve as a full-time professional musician would depend on appealing to younger people. After touring alone and recording his eponymous debut album solo for Vanguard, Watson decided in 1964 to invite a musician half his age to be part of his act – someone who could help him reach younger fans and guide him from gig to gig. That someone was his son Merle, then 15, whose slide and fingerstyle guitar would complement his father’s vocal and instrumental work.
The father-son duo became a top concert draw and recorded a string of beloved albums for United Artists and independent labels Vanguard, Poppy, Flying Fish and Sugar Hill. In 1972 Doc Watson contributed memorably to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s legendary collaborative album “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” and that recognition dramatically expanded interest in Doc and Merle Watson.
While they knew countless traditional tunes, songs and ballads, Doc and Merle were equally devoted to interpreting newer material. Doc began to refer to the repertoire the duo performed, which drew from several genres of American music, as “traditional plus.” After Merle’s tragic death in a tractor accident in 1985, Watson continued to perform a “traditional plus” repertoire in collaboration with other musicians, including bassist T. Michael Coleman, guitarist Jack Lawrence, multi-instrumentalist David Holt and guitarist Richard Watson, Merle Watson’s son and Doc Watson’s grandson.
‘Just one of the people’
Watson said that his blindness had allowed him to focus on honing his musical talents. As Coleman said in my interview with him for the notes I wrote for the Doc Watson album “Life’s Work, A Retrospective”: “Doc told me that, being blind, he was not afraid to be anywhere or to do anything.” Certainly, Watson was fearless in many of the things he did throughout his life: cutting firewood, climbing a ladder to repair an upper-story window, constructing a utility building, hitchhiking to nearby towns to play music on the street, traveling by bus to perform in faraway cities and appearing on stages before thousands of people.
Fearlessness also infused his live performances and recordings. Whether playing fiddle tunes on his guitar at lightning speed with a flatpick or singing traditional and contemporary songs to fingerstyle accompaniment, he was a daring improviser.
Watson received numerous honors during his lifetime, including the National Heritage Fellowship in 1988, the National Medal of Arts in 1997, the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in 2000 and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. But fame did not matter much to Watson. He considered himself “just one of the people.” Watson committed himself to a life in music because he loved entertaining others and because he was proud to make a living for his family.
Ted Olson does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.