Sunday, March 3, 2013

March 3: Doc" Watson was born on this date in 1923...

... he died on May 29, 2012 at the age of 89 after emergency colon surgery.

"Doc" Watson was a guitarist, songwriter and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues and gospel music.

He won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Watson's was best known for his flatpicking skills and knowledge of traditional American music. He performed with his son Merle for over 15 years until Merle's death in 1985, in an accident on the family farm.

Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina. According to Watson on his three-CD biographical recording Legacy, he got the nickname "Doc" during a live radio broadcast when the announcer remarked that his given name Arthel was odd and he needed an easy nickname. A fan in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" presumably in reference to the literary character Sherlock Holmes's sidekick Doctor Watson. The name had stuck ever since.

An eye infection caused Doc Watson to lose his vision before his first birthday. He attended North Carolina's school for the visually impaired, The Governor Morehead School, in Raleigh, North Carolina.

Watson's first guitar a $10 Stella guitar from Sears Roebuck. He earned the money to buy it after he and his brother David chopped down chestnut trees along the edge of the family's field and sold the wood. His first high quality guitar was a Martin Guitar D-18. The first song he learned to play on the guitar was "When Roses Bloom in Dixieland."

Watson quickly proved to be a natural musical talent and within months was performing on local street corners playing songs from the Delmore Brothers, Louvin Brothers, and Monroe Brothers alongside his brother Linny. By the time Watson reached adulthood, he had become a proficient acoustic and electric guitar player. He said earliest influences were the roots of country, including the Carter Family and Jimmy Rodgers.

In 1953, Watson joined the Johnson City, Tennessee-based Jack Williams' country and western swing band on electric guitar. Watson taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his Les Paul electric guitar. He later transferred the technique to acoustic guitar, and playing fiddle tunes became part of his signature sound. During his time with Jack Williams, Doc also supported his family as a piano tuner.

In 1960, as the American folk music revival grew, began playing acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively. In the early1960s, he began to tour as a solo performer and appeared at universities and clubs like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Watson would eventually get his big break and rave reviews for his performance at the renowned Newport Folk Festival in Newport, Rhode Island in 1963.

Watson recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began performing with his son Merle the same year. After the folk revival waned during the late 1960s, Watson's career was sustained by his performance of "Tennessee Stud" on the 1972 live album recording Will the Circle Be Unbroken. As popular as ever, Doc and Merle began playing as a trio, with T. Michael Coleman on bass guitar, in 1974. The trio toured the globe during the late seventies and early eighties, recorded nearly fifteen albums between 1973 and 1985, and brought Doc and Merle’s unique blend of acoustic music to millions of new fans. In 1985, Merle died in a tractor accident.

Watson played guitar in both flatpicking and fingerpicking style, but is best known for his flatpick work. His guitar playing skills, combined with his authenticity as a mountain musician, made him a highly influential figure during the folk music revival. He pioneered a fast and flashy bluegrass, lead guitar style including fiddle tunes and crosspicking techniques which were adopted and extended by Clarence White, Tony Rice and many others. Watson was also an accomplished banjo player and sometimes accompanied himself on harmonica as well.

Doc and Merle Watson
Known also for his distinctive and rich baritone voice, Watson over the years developed a vast repertoire of mountain ballads, which he learned via the oral tradition of his home area in Deep Gap, North Carolina. His affable manner, humble nature and delightful wit endeared him to his fans nearly as much as his musical talent.

Watson played a Martin model D-18 guitar on his earliest recordings. In 1968, Watson began a relationship with Gallagher Guitars when he started playing their G-50 model. In 1974, Gallagher created a customized G-50 line to meet Watson's preferred specifications, which bears the Doc Watson name.

In 1991, Gallagher customized a personal cutaway guitar for Watson that he played until his death. Doc also played a Dana Bourgeois dreadnought given to him by Ricky Skaggs for his 80th birthday. In 1986, Watson received the North Carolina Award and in 1994 he received a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. Also in 1994, Watson teamed up with musicians Randy Scruggs and Earl Scruggs to contribute the classic song "Keep on the Sunny Side" to the AIDS benefit album Red Hot + Country produced by the Red Hot Organization.

In 2000, Watson was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Owensboro, Kentucky. In 1997, Watson received the National Medal of Arts , and in . 2010, he was awarded an honorary doctor of music degree from Berklee College of Music. In his later life, Watson scaled back his touring schedule. Watson was generally joined onstage by his grandson (Merle's son) Richard, as well as longtime musical partners David Holt or Jack Lawrence.

Watson hosted the annual MerleFest music festival held every April at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival features a vast array of acoustic style music focusing on the folk, bluegrass, blues and old-time music genres. It is named in honor of Merle Watson and is one of the most popular acoustic music festivals in the world, drawing over 70,000 music fans each year.

In 2010, Blooming Twig Books published "Blind But Now I See" by Dr. Kent Gustavson, the first comprehensive biography of the seminal flatpicking guitarist.


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