Doc Watson, the blind virtuoso guitarist, folk music icon and the winner of seven Grammys, died Tuesday in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89 and had colon surgery last week and had also recently suffered a fall.
Discovered in 1960 as the American folk revival boomed, Watson dazzled festival and concert audiences with his fast, flowing flatpicking and fingerpicking on a broad repertoire of folk, country, bluegrass and old-time material. His playing influenced the work of such later world-class guitarists as Tony Rice and Clarence White. He was also an impressive banjo player and an ingratiating high-lonesome vocalist.
He became a lionized folk star as a soloist and in tandem with his late son Merle. A series of ’60s live and studio recordings for Vanguard Records spread his reputation and sparked an international touring career.
From 1988 on, Watson hosted Merlefest, a traditional music festival, in Wilkesboro, N.C.
Arthel Lane Watson was born in Stony Fork, N.C., and raised in Deep Gap, where he lived for the rest of his life. He lost his sight to an eye infection before he turned 1. He learned the stock of old-time ballads and songs from which he drew his repertoire from his mother and father, who also practiced shape-note hymn singing.
Watson began playing a homemade banjo at the age of 6 and listened to early country artists like the Carter Family and Jimmie Rodgers on the family Victrola. At the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, he was exposed to the music of the early jazz guitarists Django Reinhardt and Nick Lucas and began to learn how to play the guitar. (He would also cite country guitarists Chet Atkins and Merle Travis as influences.)
By his late teens, Watson had acquired a Martin D-28 guitar, a regional reputation and the nickname Doc, after an announcer at a radio appearance had trouble pronouncing his given name and an audience member, apparently a Sherlock Holmes fan, yelled out, “Call him Doc!”
Ironically, Watson’s steadiest early professional employment was as an electric guitarist with Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a Western swing band that also essayed rockabilly. When his career-making recording session took place in 1960, he didn’t own an acoustic guitar.
Watson preserved his acoustic chops by performing informally with a group of local old-time musicians, including Clarence “Tom” Ashley, a North Carolina legend who had recorded solo and with the Carolina Tar Heels in the ’20s. After folklorist Ralph Rinzler sought out Ashley on a recording trip and heard Watson, he urged the younger musician to perform in a folk style.
With a borrowed Martin, Watson recorded with Ashley; the resultant sessions, released by Folkways in two volumes as “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s,” introduced the hitherto unknown musician to folk enthusiasts.
He made his New York debut in 1961 at a concert sponsored by the Friends of Old Time Music; the following year, he began playing professionally there at clubs like Gerde’s Folk City and the Gaslight. He made sensational appearances at the New York Folk Festival in 1963 (when his eponymous debut Vanguard album was issued) and ’64, and was paired in the studio and onstage with such luminaries as folk singer Jean Ritchie and bluegrass founding father Bill Monroe.
Watson’s most sustained partnership was with his son Merle, who, like his father, took up the guitar as a teenager. The duo debuted professionally at the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964; their first album together, “Doc Watson and Son,” followed a year later. They would perform together until Merle was killed in a tractor accident on his farm in 1985.
In 1972, Watson was one of the participants in the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s all-star homage to classic country and bluegrass, “Will the Circle Be Unbroken.” Two years later, he received his first Grammy for best ethnic or traditional recording for his 1973 Poppy album “Then and Now.”
He reaped four more solo Grammys in folk and country categories, plus a pair for duo performances — for the album “Legacy” (with David Holt in 2002) and the instrumental “Whiskey Before Breakfast” (with Bryan Sutton in 2006).
Following Merle’s tragic death, Watson performed more infrequently, but he launched Merlefest on the campus of Wilkes Community College to celebrate his son’s memory and the gamut of tradition-based music. On several occasions over the years, Watson played at the fest with a third-generation Watson guitar picker — his grandson, Merle’s son Richard.
In later years, Watson recorded prolifically for the folk label Sugar Hill Records; he was paired in the studio with such fellow country and bluegrass stars as Mac Wiseman, Del McCoury, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs. One of his most entertaining later works was 1994’s “Docabilly,” on which he essayed some rockabilly and rock ‘n’ roll standards he performed before his ascent in folk music.
Watson received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997 and was awarded a National Heritage Fellowship by the National Endowment for the Arts in 1988.
He is survived by his wife Rosa Lee and a daughter.