Acclaimed as the master exponent of flat-picking guitar, Doc Watson has been playing and singing American traditional music for well over half a century. At his own request, a statue in his honour in the North Carolina town of Boone, is inscribed, “Doc Watson: Just one of the people”.
Blues/bluegrass legend Arthel Lane Watson aka “Doc” Watson was born in Stoney Fork Township, near Deep Gap, North Carolina, USA. Blind before his first birthday due to an infection, Doc was exposed to both country and gospel music from an early age. Taking up the harmonica, he later graduating to a series of home-made banjos and was introduced to both classic and jazz recordings while attending a Blind School in Raleigh.
Inspired by hearing both Jimmie Rodgers and Django Reinhardt, Doc took up the guitar and began to play for tips and enter talent contests. Married in 1947, he worked as a piano tuner and by 1953 was playing electric guitar in Jack Williams’ country and western swing band.
Invited to perform at a Folkways recording session of old-time hillbilly music in 1960, Watson’s playing impressed sufficiently for he and some fellow local players to perform at a concert in New York City. That led to solo gigs (and also some alongside the great Bill Monroe) as new-found enthusiasts fanning the flames of a folk revival lapped up Watson’s Appalachian stylings.
By 1964 Doc was joined on stage at the Berkeley Folk Festival by his son Merle – now 15 and a promising guitarist. That same year had seen Doc’s self-titled debut album released, comprising of mostly traditional tunes, with “Doc Watson and Son” appearing in 1965. Guesting on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” brought Doc to the attention of a new audience – although he was initially reluctant to participate because Merle – by then his driver and full-time accompanist – wasn’t invited.
The following year brought the first of Doc’s eight Grammy accolades (including a lifetime achievement award) for the album “Then And Now. Continuing to tour and perform despite the accidental death of Merle in 1985, Doc received the National Medal of Arts in 1997 from then-US President Bill Clinton, acknowledging his contribution to American cultural heritage, alongside such fellow recipients as Les Paul, Bob Dylan and BB King.
Remaining active on the live music scene, Doc also continues to perform at the annual “Merle Fest” series of shows in memory of his son, staged in the North Carolina town of Wilkesboro since 1988.
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And here’s some footage of the good Doctor in action: