R.I.P. Doc Watson

It’s possible that Doc Watson could have lived for 89 years without anyone outside of a small community in North Carolina knowing what an enormously talented guitarist and stirring singer he was. A soft-spoken blind man who didn’t enter a recording studio until he was almost 40, Watson spent nearly half of his life playing some of the purest sounds to ever come out of a six-string for the good people in and around his hometown of Deep Gap. Fortunately, the world did eventually discover Doc Watson, and when he died Tuesday, one week after undergoing colon surgery, he was praised as one of the greatest folk musicians of the 20th century.

Watson’s big break came in 1961, when he was a featured performer on the Appalachian music compilation, Old Time Music At Clarence Ashley’s. Born on March 23, 1923 as Arthel Lane Watson, he fell blind before his first birthday, when an eye infection impaired his vision. He was still expected to pitch in around the house, earning the money for his first guitar by chopping down chestnut trees on the family property and selling the wood to a local tannery. He was playing publicly by the time he was a teenager, providing the music for local dances. Eventually he hooked up with banjo player Tom “Clarence” Ashley, soaking up lessons in “old-timey” music from a regional legend who played his first gigs at medicine shows at the turn of the century. After breaking out as a solo artist in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival, and releasing his influential self-titled album the following year, Watson would provide an authentic link to America’s mysterious, back-country musical past well into the 21sy century.

Watson was famous for his flat-picking skills, which he perfected as a young man trying to replicate the sound of fiddle licks on his guitar. Even after the folk boom of the ’60s, he was able to stay active, introducing his music to a new generation of fans by contributing to the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken. In the ’70s and ’80s, he toured as a popular concert act with his son Merle, until Merle’s death in 1985 from a tractor accident. In recent years, he toured less, but he played on when he could, and was often joined by his grandson, Richard. Even with Doc now gone, the circle remains unbroken.

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