The Fishman community and the music world at large have lost another legend with the passing of guitar virtuoso Doc Watson, who was 89. The eight-time Grammy winner died on Tuesday, May 29 at the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC after undergoing surgery for an impacted colon last week. He had initially been hospitalized after a fall.
Arthel "Doc" Watson's mastery of flatpicking helped make the case for the guitar as a lead instrument in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was often considered a backup for the mandolin, fiddle or banjo. His fast playing could intimidate other musicians, even his own grandson, who performed with him.
Arthel Lane Watson was born in North Carolina in 1923 and spent nearly all of his life in Deep Gap. An infection left him blind before his first birthday – a fact that makes his musicianship all the more remarkable. But his father taught him early on that the lack of sight was an inconvenience, not a disability.
He played the banjo as a child and became familiar with the music of the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers from recordings played on his family’s wind-up Victrola. He gained a broader exposure to music when, at the age of 10, he started attending the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C.
That’s when he switched to playing guitar. Just as countless budding guitarists improved and perfected their technique by playing along with Doc – or at least trying to – Doc learned by playing along with Jimmie Rodgers’ records.
Doc picked up his nickname for life during an early live radio performance, when an announcer decided he should be called something other than Arthel. “Call him Doc,” yelled a woman who clearly was a fan of Sherlock Holmes and his sidekick Watson.
Doc Watson got his musical start in 1953, playing electric lead guitar in a country-and-western swing band. His road to fame began in 1960 when Ralph Rinzler, a musician who also managed Bill Monroe, discovered Watson in North Carolina. That led Watson to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his first recording contract a year later. He went on to record 60 albums.
Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
But Doc is perhaps best known for performances and recordings with his son, Merle, and for his work on the legendary 1972 Will the Circle Be Unbroken album.
Merle began recording and touring with him in 1964. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C., that raises money for a community college there and celebrates "traditional plus" music.
"When Merle and I started out we called our music `traditional plus,' meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play," Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the festival's website. "Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is `traditional plus."'
Doc Watson has said that when Merle died, he lost the best friend he would ever have.
He also relied on his wife, Rosa Lee, whom he married in 1947.
"I love music and love a good audience and still have to make a living," Watson said. "Why would I quit?"
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger of Nashville said Doc Watson made every song his own, regardless of its age. `He's one of those lucky guys," said Huttlinger, who studied Watson's methods when he first picked up a guitar. "When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it — it's Doc Watson."
He changed folk music forever by adapting fiddle tunes to guitar at amazing tempos, Huttlinger said. "And people all over the place were trying to figure out how to do this," he said. "But Doc, he set the bar for everyone. He said, `This is how it goes.' And people have been trying for years to match that.
"He took it (the guitar) out of the background and brought it upfront as a melody instrument. We're no longer at the back of the class. He gave the front to us."
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C., at the spot where Watson had played decades earlier for tips to support his family, according to the Folklore statement. At Watson's request the inscription read, "Just One of the People."
[portions courtesy of AP and Bluegrass Today]