Guitarist Doc Watson, Pioneer of Folk and Bluegrass, Dead at 89

by Damian Fanelli
Posted May 30, 2012 at 10:24am

Folk and bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson died Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was 89.

The guitarist, who had been admitted to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on May 21 after falling at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, died of complications from abdominal surgery.

Arthel Lane Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap. He went blind at age 1 after an eye infection but was encouraged by his parents to sing and learn guitar, later joining them in the local church choir. By age 5, he had added banjo and harmonica to his repertoire, performing religious and secular music.

After some time in a swing band, which he joined when he was 20, Watson released his first album, Doc Watson and Family, in 1963. The album gave listeners an introduction to Watson's unique flatpicking style. That same year, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the event that launched his career.

Watson earned the nickname "Doc" during a live radio broadcast when the announcer said Watson's real name, Arthel, was odd and he needed an easy nickname. A fan in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" possibly reference to Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, Doctor Watson. The name stuck.

Watson played a Martin D-18 guitar on his earliest recordings. In 1968, he began a relationship with Gallagher Guitars and used their G-50 model. His first Gallagher, which Watson called "Old Hoss," is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1974, Gallagher created a customized G-50 line to meet Watson's specifications. In 1991, Gallagher customized a personal cutaway guitar for Watson that he played until his death and and which he called "Donald." For the past few years, Doc had been playing a Dana Bourgeois dreadnought given to him by Ricky Skaggs for his 80th birthday.

Watson spent several years recording and performing music with his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 at age 36 (Check out the On Stage album for a great example of what the duo sounded like in concert). Watson founded MerleFest in his son's honor; the annual acoustic music gathering in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, has become a pilgrimage for musicians and fans of Americana.

Watson won seven Grammys and received the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement award in 2004. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton presented Watson with the National Medal for the Arts, in recognition of his significant impact on national heritage music.

A life-size sculpture of Watson was erected in Boone, North Carolina, last year with the inscription "Just One of the People."

Add a Comment

Similar Guitar News

Christie's Auctions Doc Watson's Iconic Gallagher G-50 Guitar (11/12/2012)
Christie's is auctioning a 1968 Gallagher G-50 guitar that once belonged to the late Doc Watson. The guitar, which Watson called "Ol' Hoss," can be seen on the cover of Watson's Ballads from Deep Gap album (pictured) and is expected to take in $...
Christie's To Auction 1941 Martin D-28, Doc Watson's "Ol' Hoss,' Dopyera Collection, And More (11/9/2012)
New York, NY (November 10, 2012) -- Christie's has announced the details of their latest musical instruments auction, featuring vintage and rare acoustics. It is set to take place on November 27. Here are the highlights of the auction from the o...
Poll: The Greatest Guitarist of All Time, Round 1 — Doc Watson Vs. Chet Atkins (6/5/2012)
Welcome to our first-ever Greatest Guitarist poll, where 128 guitarists go head to head, round by round, in a bracketed format, all to crown your choice for the Greatest Guitarist of All Time. We filled 124 of 128 slots with the names of a host ...
Remembering Doc Watson By Bryan Sutton (6/4/2012)
One Christmas morning, when I was probably 9 or 10, Santa brought me a nice stereo turntable outfit. I'll never forget walking toward the thing and seeing that there were four Doc Watson records leaning up against it—Southbound, Doc and Merle Wa...
Bluegrass guitar legend Doc Watson dies aged 89 (5/30/2012)
The folk world is in mourning today for pioneering guitarist Doc Watson, who died aged 89 at a hospital in North Carolina on Tuesday (29 May). Watson was renowned for his lightning fast flatpicking guitar style and has been cited as an influenc...
Doc Watson Dies At Age 89 (5/30/2012)
Photo by Peter Figen Winston-Salem, NC (May 30, 2012) – Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson died on Tuesday, May 29 at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, NC. He was 89. Born in 1