Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson passed away on Tuesday at age 89. Doc Watson was tremendously prolific, recording 60 albums during his long career. Combining bluegrass, folk, country, blues, and gospel music, Watson was legendary for his command of American folk music styles and for his highly developed flatpicking acoustic guitar style.
Arthel Watson was born in North Carolina in 1923. He lost his sight due to infection before he turned one year old. He was playing harmonica at a very early age and began playing banjo at age 5. He earned money for his first guitar chopping and selling wood and began learning early country music from artists such as the Carter Family and Jimmy Rogers.
In 1953 he joined a country and western swing band playing electric guitar — a Gibson Les Paul. Because the band lacked a fiddle player, he learned to play fiddle tunes on the guitar, which led to the development of his flatpicking and crosspicking acoustic lead guitar style and reinvented the guitar’s role in bluegrass music. He also worked as a piano tuner. In 1960, with the rise of the folk music boom, Watson switched to acoustic guitar and banjo, played on his first album, and began touring as a solo performer across the country.
Watson founded and hosted the annual MerleFest festival, named for his son, musician Merle Watson, who was killed in 1985 in a farm accident. Merle and Doc performed together for over 15 years prior to Merle’s death.
During his career, Watson received many, many awards, including seven Grammy awards plus the 2004 Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He was also honored with a National Medal of Arts and was given an honorary doctorate of music from Berklee. In 2000, he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Hall of Honor. His guitar playing was highly influential on many musicians, including Clarence White, Tony Rice, and many more. He referred to the music he played as “traditional plus” — explaining this meant the traditional music of the Appalachian area plus whatever other styles he was in the mood to play.