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In 1962, Doc Watson and some of his musician neighbors set out from their home in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the journey of a lifetime, to perform at the Ash Grove folk club in Los Angeles.
“I remember the first trip we did,” Watson said in a 2008 interview. “We borrowed a little station wagon from the late Clarence Ashley’s son and drove to California and back, and I remember thinking, ‘Lord, what a big old country this is.’ I was a mountaineer, just a country boy. I’d never been nowhere like that before.”
FOR THE RECORD:
An earlier version of this obituary reported Watson’s date of birth as March 2, 1923. He was born March 3, 1923.
Within a few years, Watson seemingly had been everywhere, as his prowess on guitar and his vast store of traditional Southern music made the blind musician an internationally celebrated artist.
Watson, 89, who recorded more than 50 albums and won seven Grammy Awards, died Tuesday at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., according to his representatives at Folklore Productions, a Santa Monica management company. He had undergone colon surgery Thursday.
Although Watson is perhaps most acclaimed for his astonishing technique in both the flat-pick and finger-picking styles, his greatest contribution touched on broader concerns.
“Doc arrived at a point where there was the beginning of an audience for traditional music, but not really an informed group of people,” Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl said last week.
“Doc was by far the best traditional artist I ever met at talking openly about his people, and just having a casual conversation with an audience.… He was among the most versatile and un-self-conscious bringers of Southern white culture to the Ash Grove possible, and he did that right from the beginning.”
With his natural ease as a storyteller, his heartfelt baritone singing, his repository of material and his facility on guitar, Watson was a rare combination of authenticity and artistry.
His example inspired a generation of musicians to explore obscure musical pockets, as well as to upgrade their instrumental technique toward the remarkably high standards he established. He is one of the prime sources of the hybrid, roots-conscious Americana genre, and a key influence on such noted players as Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Buddy Miller and Dan Crary.
“Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Assn., told The Times. “He played different styles of American roots music. He played traditional country, he played what would be traditional folk, he played what was traditional bluegrass, he played gospel. All those elements sort of interwoven, that’s what Buddy Miller does today.… Nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson’s appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world.”
Watson received a National Medal of Arts in 1997 and a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2004.
Remarkably, Watson was well into his 40s when he embarked on a serious music career.
Arthel Lane Watson was born March 3, 1923, one of nine children in a farming family in Deep Gap, N.C. Blinded by an eye infection before he was 2, he was encouraged by his father to be active on the farm. His father also helped foster his musical leanings.
Arthel received a new harmonica every Christmas; and when he was 11 his father made him a banjo, with the head formed from the skin of the family’s recently deceased cat. He got his first guitar at 13 and steeped himself in the music he heard on the Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and records by such country pioneers as Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family.
Watson and his brother Linney played on street corners in nearby Boone, and he later played in local country bands, developing a style influenced by Merle Travis, Eddy Arnold and Chet Atkins. He also tuned pianos to help support a new family — in 1947 he married his teenage cousin Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of noted fiddler Gaither Carlton. Watson’s new in-law helped him stockpile his repertoire of traditional songs.
Nicknamed Doc by an announcer at a radio station where his group sometimes played, Watson joined a dance band in 1953, adding his electric guitar to its mix of country, pop, swing and square dance music. He had tried to play fiddle but was dissatisfied with his bowing skill, so he began to play the up-tempo fiddle leads on his Les Paul, a la Nashville session stars Grady Martin and Riley Puckett.
For Watson, the traditional acoustic music remained a private passion, so he was intrigued in the late 1950s when the Kingston Trio and other big-city singers began to find success interpreting the old songs.
But his own breakthrough came by accident. Musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler traveled to the South to record old-time singer and banjo player Clarence “Tom” Ashley, who recruited some neighbors, including Watson, for the session. Watson had to borrow a friend’s Gibson because he didn’t own an acoustic guitar.
The recordings stirred up some interest, and Rinzler took the players to New York for a concert at Town Hall that helped coalesce the growing folk audience. Watson also got a booking at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village; and in 1962 Watson, Ashley and company headed west for their first Ash Grove engagement. They also played key folk festivals, including those at Newport, R.I., and UCLA.
Watson eventually followed Rinzler’s advice and emerged as a solo performer, though he was soon accompanied regularly by his guitarist son, Merle. For Watson, the career offered an opportunity to pull his weight and support his family, and one of his proudest moments was informing a North Carolina state agency that he no longer needed financial assistance for the blind.
It all came to a temporary halt when Merle was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, but after a hiatus Watson returned to the road. In 1988 he organized MerleFest, an informal folk music gathering in Wilkesboro, N.C., that has grown into one of the country’s major folk festivals.
Watson, who recorded for a variety of record labels, disliked touring because it kept him away from his home and family, and he first announced his retirement from the road in 1988. He gradually cut back on his schedule but continued to play occasional concerts.
On “Legacy,” a 2002 recording of music and conversation with Watson and musician David Holt, Watson is asked how he’d like to be remembered.
“Just as a good old, down-to-earth boy that didn’t think he was perfect and that loved music,” he says. “And I’d like to leave quite a few friends behind.... Other than that, I don’t want anybody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I’m just one of the people.”
Besides his wife of nearly 66 years, Watson is survived by his daughter Nancy Ellen, two grandchildren, several great-grandchildren and a brother, David.