For almost 50 years, Doc Watson, who has died aged 89, was the most illustrious name in traditional American folk music. He was a superb, original guitarist and a singer of warmth and simplicity. He also set countless musicians on the road to careers in folk music. Probably, no folk performer of his time has inspired greater admiration and affection.
Doc Watson: A Musical Hero, A Legend
Born in 1923 in Deep Gap, Arthel Lane, “Doc” Watson influenced generations of country, folk and bluegrass artists with his flat-picking approach to the guitar. Watson went blind at age one following an eye infection. He quickly grew immersed in music. Thanks to his parents, who performed in the local church choir and sang secular and religious songs.
By the age of five, Watson was playing the banjo and harmonica. And, by 1953 he was playing electric for a local country swing band. Watson’s solo career took off following a performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. He was known for his folk music that turned into a cultural phenomenon. Also, he released his solo debut, Doc Watson, and Family, that same year.
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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.
Watson spent 15 years recording and performing music with his son Merle, who died tragically in a tractor accident in 1985, at 36 years old. Further,Watson went on to find MerleFest, an annual acoustic music gathering held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival has become a destination event and pilgrimage for musicians as well as fans of Americana.
In the last couple of decades, weary of the road, Watson had made fewer personal appearances.
Doc Watson died on May 29th, 2012 in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, following complications from abdominal surgery. He was 89. Watson did not excel only on guitar mastery. His song interpretations and echoes of the Appalachian “mountain” music of his childhood captivated also audiences around the world and across generations.