Warm Southern Breeze

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Legendary Finger Picker Guitarist “Doc” Watson dead at 89

Posted by Warm Southern Breeze on Thursday, May 31, 2012

“Doc” Watson was proof that no matter the difficulties, trials or tribulations that life throws your way, if you put your heart and soul to whatever your hand finds to do, you can excel.

May his memory be blessed.

Doc Watson, Blind Guitar Wizard Who Influenced Generations, Dies at 89

May 29, 2012

Doc Watson, the guitarist and folk singer whose flat-picking style elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status in bluegrass and country music, and whose interpretations of traditional American music profoundly influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists, died on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.

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Doc Watson performing in New York in 2005. (Jack Vartoogian/FrontRowPhotos)

Mr. Watson, who had been blind since he was a baby, died in a hospital after recently undergoing abdominal surgery, The Associated Press quoted a hospital spokesman as saying. On Thursday his daughter, Nancy Ellen Watson, said he had been hospitalized after falling at his home in Deep Gap, N.C., adding that he did not break any bones but was very ill.

Mr. Watson, who came to national attention during the folk music revival of the early 1960s, injected a note of authenticity into a movement awash in protest songs and bland renditions of traditional tunes. In a sweetly resonant, slightly husky baritone, he sang old hymns, ballads and country blues he had learned growing up in the northwestern corner of North Carolina, which has produced fiddlers, banjo pickers and folk singers for generations.

His mountain music came as a revelation to the folk audience, as did his virtuoso guitar playing. Unlike most country and bluegrass musicians, who thought of the guitar as a secondary instrument for providing rhythmic backup, Mr. Watson executed the kind of flashy, rapid-fire melodies normally played by a fiddle or a banjo. His style influenced a generation of young musicians learning to play the guitar as folk music achieved national popularity.

“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance,” said Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who discovered Mr. Watson in 1960. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”

Arthel Lane Watson was born in Stoney Fork, N.C., the sixth of nine children, on March 3, 1923. His father, General Dixon Watson, was a farmer and day laborer who led the singing at the local Baptist church. His mother, Annie, sang old-time ballads while doing household chores and at night sang the children to sleep.

When Mr. Watson was still an infant an eye infection left him blind, and the few years of formal schooling he received were at the Raleigh School for the Blind. His musical training, typical for the region, began in early childhood. At the age of 5 or 6 he received his first harmonica as a Christmas gift, and at 11 his father made him a fretless banjo with a head made from the skin of a family cat that had just died.

Arthel dropped out of school in the seventh grade and began working for his father, who helped him get past his disability. “I would not have been worth the salt that went in my bread if my dad hadn’t put me at the end of a crosscut saw to show me that there was not a reason in the world that I couldn’t pull my own weight and help to do my part in some of the hard work,” he told Frets magazine in 1979.

By then, Arthel had moved beyond the banjo. His father, hearing him plucking chords on a borrowed guitar, promised to buy him his own guitar if he could teach himself a song by the end of the day. The boy taught himself the Carter Family’s “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” and a week later he was the proud owner of a $12 Stella guitar.

Mr. Watson initially employed a thumb-picking style, in which the thumb establishes a bass line on the lower strings while the rest of the fingers pick out a melody or chords. That soon changed.

“I began listening to Jimmie Rodgers recordings seriously and I figured, ‘Hey, he must be doing that with one of them straight picks,’ ” he told Dirty Linen magazine in 1995. “So I got me one and began to work at it. Then I began to learn the Jimmie Rodgers licks on the guitar, then all at once I began to figure out, ‘Hey, I could play that Carter stuff a lot better with a flat pick.’ ”

To pay for a new Martin guitar bought on the installment plan, Mr. Watson played for tips at a cab stand in Lenoir, N.C. Before long he was appearing at amateur contests and fiddlers’ conventions. One day, as he prepared to play for a radio show being broadcast from a furniture store, the announcer decided that the young guitarist needed a snappier name and appealed to the audience for suggestions. A woman yelled out, “Doc!,” and the name stuck. (Last year, a life-size statue of Mr. Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C., at another spot where he had once played for tips to support his family. At his request the inscription read, “Just One of the People.”)

In 1947 he married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of a local fiddler. The couple’s first child, Merle, took up the guitar and began performing with his father in 1964. Their partnership, which produced 20 albums, ended with Merle Watson’s death at 36 in a tractor accident in Lenoir in 1985. Mr. Watson is survived by his wife; his daughter, Nancy Ellen; a brother, David; two grandchildren; and several great-grandchildren.

In 1953, Mr. Watson began playing electric guitar with a country dance band, Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen. The band usually played without a fiddle, so Mr. Watson learned how to play lead fiddle parts on the guitar, often complicated melodies executed at top speed. This technique, which he carried over to the acoustic guitar, became a hallmark, exemplified by his much imitated version of “Black Mountain Rag.”

In 1960 Mr. Rinzler, the folklorist, was attending a fiddlers’ convention in Union Grove, N.C., when he encountered Clarence Ashley, an old-time folk musician better known as Tom Ashley, whom he persuaded to sit for a recording session. Mr. Ashley put together a group of top local musicians that included Mr. Watson on banjo and guitar. Impressed, Mr. Rinzler went to Mr. Watson’s home and recorded him with family members, including his father-in-law, Gaither Carlton.

A year later Mr. Watson, Mr. Ashley and several other musicians gave a concert at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village sponsored by the Friends of Old Time Music. The performance led to appearances at colleges and folk festivals and a solo career for Mr. Watson, who became a star attraction at clubs like Gerdes Folk City and an audience favorite for his folksy, humorous banter onstage. He was invited to appear at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and 1964. In 1963 he performed at Town Hall in Manhattan with the bluegrass pioneer Bill Monroe.

In the meantime Folkways released “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s” and “The Watson Family,” and Vanguard released Mr. Watson’s first solo album, “Doc Watson.” His recordings for Folkways and Vanguard in the 1960s are regarded as classics.

Despite his image, Mr. Watson was not a folk-music purist. Even as a child he absorbed big-band jazz and the guitar playing of Django Reinhardt, whose records he heard at school. “I can’t be put in a box,” he told Fred Metting, the author of “The Life, Work, and Music of the American Folk Artist Doc Watson” (2006). “I play traditional music and whatever else I’m drawn to.”

His catholic tastes expressed themselves on albums like “Good Deal!” (1968), recorded in Nashville with mainstream country musicians; “Docabilly” (1995), a return to the kind of rock ’n’ roll he had played in the 1950s; and the eclectic “Memories” (1975), which included “field hollers, black blues, sacred music, mountain music, gospel, rhythm and blues, even traces of jazz,” the critic Chet Flippo wrote in his liner notes.

Folk audiences, however, saw Mr. Watson as a direct conduit to the roots music of Appalachia, which he played with conviction. “To me the old-time fiddling, the old-time ballads — there never was anything prettier and there never will be,” he said.

Mr. Watson found touring hard to bear. “For a green country man not really used to the city, it was a scary thing to come to New York and wonder, ‘Will that guy meet me there at the bus station, and will the bus driver help me change buses?’ and all that stuff, people not knowing you’re blind and stepping on your feet,” he told The Washington Post. “It’s scary, the road is.”

In 1964 Merle Watson, then 15, joined him as a rhythm guitarist and eased most of the burdens of the road from his father’s shoulders. The two performed together for 20 years, receiving Grammy Awards for the albums “Then and Now” in 1974, “Two Days in November” in 1975 and “Big Sandy/Leather Britches” in 1980. A sampling of their work was collected on “Watson Country: Doc and Merle Watson” (1996).

Waning interest in folk music slowed Mr. Watson’s career in the late 1960s, but in 1972 he was invited to contribute to “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” an album that paired the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band with country artists like Maybelle Carter, Merle Travis (Merle Watson’s namesake) and Earl Scruggs. The record’s success brought Mr. Watson a new audience, and he and Merle toured constantly until Merle’s death.

Mr. Watson returned to the road a week after the funeral. Merle, he said, had appeared to him in a dream and urged him to carry on. In his son’s honor, he helped found an annual music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., now known as Merlefest.

In the post-Merle period, Mr. Watson won Grammys for the albums “Riding the Midnight Train” in 1987, “On Praying Ground” in 1991 and “Legacy” in 2003. His fingers were dexterous well into old age, as he showed on the track “Whiskey Before Breakfast,” recorded with the guitarist Bryan Sutton, which won a Grammy for best country instrumental performance in 2007. In concerts he was often joined on guitar by his grandson Richard, Merle’s son.

In 1997, President Bill Clinton presented Mr. Watson with the National Medal of Arts at the White House. “There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson,” Mr. Clinton said.

Quiet and unassuming offstage, Mr. Watson played down his virtuoso guitar playing as nothing more than “country pickin.’ ” He told interviewers that had he not been blind, he would have become an auto mechanic and been just as happy.

“He wants to be remembered as a pretty good old boy,” said the guitarist Jack Lawrence, who had played with Mr. Watson since the early 1980s. “He doesn’t put the fact that he plays the guitar as more than a skill.”

A version of this article appeared in print on May 30, 2012, on page A21 of the New York edition with the headline: Doc Watson, Blind Guitar Wizard Who Influenced Generations, Dies at 89.


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