Born on March 3, 1923, Arthel “Doc” Watson is an icon for folk, bluegrass, and country music due to his mastery of the flat-top guitar. He became an important musician who contributed innovative styles and techniques, especially for the guitar, for the folk, country, and bluegrass genres.
Doc was the sixth child in the Watson family. He was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina in Watauga County, and went blind before his first birthday. Reared in Western North Carolina known for its communities and families connected by the bonds of folk music, Doc Watson’s father, General Dixon Watson, was a local church choir director and his mother, Annie Green, sang gospel hymns to her children while she put them to bed. He remembered his first singing experience in church as his mother held him and sang hymns such as “There is a Fountain” and “The Lone Pilgrim.”
Young Watson received his first banjo when he was eleven. His father had built the instrument for Doc and he taught him the basics of playing a stringed instrument. Doc developed a good relationship with General Watson, and he recalls how his father had much to do with his success, despite his blindness. Doc later said that when his father allowed him to work, he felt useful and that “He made me know that just because I was blind certainly didn’t mean I was helpless.”
Entering the Morehead School for the Blind in 1933, Doc soon learned how to play the guitar. Doc started playing the guitar on the streets of Lenoir, North Carolina, and he was invited to play shows around the city due to his distinguished skill. When he was eighteen, Watson earned his nickname “Doc” when a radio announcer wanted a easier name for a radio show. A lady in the crowd yelled, “Call him Doc,” and the name has remained ever since.
In 1953, Doc landed an opportunity to play for the Jack Williams’ band, the County Gentlemen, and during this time Watson grew in his ability to flatpick the guitar. (Flatpicking is a method of playing the guitar with a guitar pick or plectrum). Later in his tenure with Williams’ band, he started playing the electric guitar. The band did not have a fiddle player and a certain events and dances people wanted to hear and dance to the tune of a fiddle. Doc invented fiddle tunes with a new picking style, and he became famous for this unique guitar hallmark.
In 1947, Doc wedded Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of one of Watson’s early influences, Gaither Carlton. The couple had two children, one son Eddy Merle in 1949, and one daughter Nancy Ellen in 1951. Merle accompanied his father on tour in the 1960s and 1970s, and the duo proved successful, as Merle managed the events and concerts and played backup guitar to Doc’s main act. However after several years of touring, Merle Watson died from a tractor accident in 1985, and Doc started the annual concert known as the Merlefest in remembrance of his son. Merlefest, hosted by the town of Wilkesboro, is held during the last weekend of April.
Watson has earned several distinct honors because of his contributions to American music. The University of North Carolina presented Doc with an honorary degree in 1997, and President Bill Clinton recognized him with the National Medal of the Arts. According to Dan Miller, President Jimmy Carter referred to Watson as a true “national treasure.” In addition, Doc won eight Grammy awards, and he earned the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
On May 29, 2012, “Doc” Watson passed away. He was 89. His legacy lives on, though, for the North Carolinian’s style influenced almost all traditional music players.
“Doc Watson — American Folk Music Legend.” Doug Norton and Beth Lyons. http://www.ibiblio.org/DocWat/DocWat.html, (accessed December 6, 2011).
“A Biography of Doc Watson.” Dan Miller. Flatpicking Guitar Magazine (July 30, 1998).
“Bluegrass Music; Folk Music; MerleFest.” William S. Powell, ed. Encyclopedia of North Carolina (University of North Carolina Press: Chapel Hill, NC 2006).