Doc Watson Passes

Photo courtesy Jim Barrow/

Doc Watson, the iconic country and bluegrass guitarist/performer who helped popularize the flat-picking playing style, passed away May 29 at a hospital in North Carolina. Watson had been hospitalized after falling at his home, and died in hospital after undergoing abdominal surgery. He was 89.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Stoney Fork, North Carolina, he was the sixth of nine children born to laborer/farmer parents. As a baby, he suffered from a congenital vascular disorder near his eyes, and was blinded when a midwife used contaminated eyedrops on him. He began playing banjo as a child, using an instrument made by his father. Later, after he began attending the North Carolina State School for the Blind in Raleigh, he learned to play guitar. By 19, he was performing on a radio station in Raleigh, where the announcer dubbed him “Doc” rather than his given name, because Doc was easier to pronounce. In 1960, while performing in North Carolina, he was introduced to folklorist/music promoter Ralph Rinzler, who organized for Watson a tour of coffeehouses in the Northeast, which in turn led to him playing the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Received enthusiastically by the audience there, recording contracts and more gigs soon followed.

By the mid ’60s, he began performing with his son, Merle, who had taken to the guitar while his father was on tour. Through the remainder of that decade and into the ’70s, the two played to dedicated audiences and received critical acclaim for their recordings and live performances. In October of 1985, Merle was killed in an accident on the family farm. In ’88, Watson, with the help of Frederick Townes, Dean of Resource Development at Wilkes Community College, and friend Ala Sue Wyke, organized a benefit concert to raise money for a memorial in honor of Merle. The event evolved to become MerleFest, which today is one of the most popular acoustic-/roots-music festivals in the world.

Watson received many awards, among them several Grammys, including a 2004 lifetime achievement award from the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences. He is survived by his wife, Rose Lee Carlton, and a daughter, Nancy Watson.

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