You could hear the mountains of North Carolina in Doc Watson’s music. The rush of a mountain stream, the steady creak of a mule in leather harness plowing rows in topsoil and the echoes of ancient sounds made by a vanishing people were an intrinsic part of the folk musician’s powerful, homespun sound.
It took Watson decades to make a name for himself outside the world of Deep Gap, N.C. Once he did, he ignited the imaginations of countless guitar players who learned the possibilities of the instrument from the humble picker who never quite went out of style. From the folk revival of the 1960s to the Americana movement of the 21st century, Watson remained a constant source of inspiration and a treasured touchstone before his death Tuesday at age 89.
Blind from the age of 1, Watson was left to listen to the world around him and it was as if he heard things differently from others. Though he knew how to play the banjo and harmonica from an early age, he came to favor the guitar. His flat-picking style helped translate the fiddle- and mandolin-dominated music of his forebears for an audience of younger listeners who were open to the tales that had echoed off the mountains for generations, and to the new lead role for the guitar.
“Overall, Doc will be remembered as one of America’s greatest folk musicians. I would say he’s one of America’s greatest musicians,” said David Holt, a longtime friend and collaborator who compared Watson to Lead Belly, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters and Earl Scruggs.
Like those pioneering players, Watson took a regional sound and made it into something larger, a piece of American culture that reverberates for decades after the notes are first played.
“He had a great way of presenting traditional songs and making them accessible to a modern audience,” Holt said. “Not just accessible, but truly engaging.”
Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he was hospitalized recently after falling at his home in Deep Gap, 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. He underwent abdominal surgery while in the hospital and had been in critical condition for several days.
Touched and toughened by tragedy several times in life, Watson had proven his mettle repeatedly. Singer Ricky Skaggs called Watson “an old ancient warrior.”
“He prepared all of us to carry this on,” Skaggs said. “He knew he wouldn’t last forever. He did his best to carry the old mountain sounds to this generation.”
Watson’s simple, unadorned voice conveyed an unexpected amount of emotion, but it was his guitar playing that always amazed _ and intimidated. Countless guitarists have tried to emulate Watson’s renditions of songs such as “Tennessee Stud,” “Shady Grove” and “Deep River Blues.”
Mandolin player Sam Bush remembers feeling that way when he first sat down next to “the godfather of all flatpickers” in 1974.
“But Doc puts you at ease about that kind of stuff,” Bush said. “I never met a more generous kind of musician. He is more about the musical communication than showing off with hot licks. … He seems to always know what notes to play. They’re always the perfect notes. He helped me learn the space between the notes is as valuable as the ones you play.”
Arthel “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923, and lost his eyesight 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.
Watson 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.