Doc Watson: Famed folk musician dies in N.C. hospital at 89

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WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. — Doc Watson, the Grammy-award winning folk musician whose lightning-fast style of flatpicking influenced guitarists around the world for more than a half-century, died Tuesday at a hospital in Winston-Salem, according to a hospital spokeswoman and his manager. He was 89.

Watson, who was blind from age 1, recently had abdominal surgery that resulted in his hospitalization.

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.

Richard Watson said in a 2000 interview with the Associated Press that his grandfather’s playing had a humbling effect on other musicians. The ever-humble Doc Watson found it hard to believe.

“Everybody that’s picked with you says you intimidate them, and that includes some of the best,” Richard Watson told him.

Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923 in what is now Deep Gap, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He lost his eyesight by the age of 1 when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named for his late son Merle.

He came from a musical family — his father was active in the church choir and played banjo and his mother sang secular and religious songs, according to a statement from Folklore Productions, his management company since 1964.

Doc Watson’s father gave him a harmonica as a young child, and by 5 he was playing the banjo, according to the Merlefest website. He learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.

“My real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music,” Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the website. “I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar.”

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.

According to the Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson took his nickname at age 19 when someone couldn’t pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted “Call him Doc!”

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.

“There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn’t at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson,” Clinton said at the time.

Folklore described Watson as “a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar.”

Doc Watson’s son 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.

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