Legendary Flatpicker Doc Watson Dead at 89
Posted by Michael Mueller on May 30, 2012 at 10:59 AM
Doc Watson, whose flatpicking technique single-handedly elevated the acoustic guitar to a lead instrument in bluegrass and traditional Americana music, died on Tuesday (5/29) in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was 89.
Watson had been hospitalized since May 21, initially for observation after a fall. On May 23, he was airlifted to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem where he underwent emergency abdominal surgery.
An eight-time Grammy winner, Watson is recognized as one of if not the most influential acoustic flatpickers of all time. In 1998, Flatpicking Guitar said Doc was "the man who had the deepest, most enduring and most profound influence on the way the acoustic flat-top guitar is played as a lead instrument in folk, old-time, and bluegrass music today."
Born Arthel Lane Watson in 1923 in Stoney Fork, North Carolina, an infection left Doc blind before his first birthday. He began playing the harmonica at age 6, and at 11 his father built him a fretless banjo, which featured a head made from the skin of his grandmother's cat, which had just died. At about age 13, Doc had borrowed a guitar from a neighbor and was playing a few chords. His father told him that if he could learn to play a song by the time he got home from work that day, he'd buy him his own guitar. Doc set to work and learned the Carter Family's "When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland," and true to his word, Doc's dad took him to town that Saturday and bought a $12 Stella guitar.
As his skills developed, Doc wished to upgrade his instrument, eventually purchasing a Martin D-28 on an installment payment. To help pay the monthly bill, Doc took to busking in the streets, where he was invited to play at contests and other events. One event was a radio show being broadcast from the nearby town of Lenoir. When the radio announcer decided that "Arthel" was an awkward name for radio, a young woman in the audience shouted out, "Call him 'Doc.'" The nickname stuck, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Watson would go on to play with such bluegrass legends as Bill Monroe and Flatt & Scruggs, among others, but is most famous for his albums and performances with his son, Merle. Doc played with Merle from 1964 until 1985, when he was killed in a tractor accident. Three years later, Doc organized a tribute concert for his son, and the event turned into the now annual MerleFest in North-Wilkesboro, N.C.
Doc is survived by his wife; his daughter, Nancy Ellen; a brother, David; two grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.