Doc Watson (1923–2012)

Updated: March 04, 2016

Guitarist, singer, banjo player, and harmonica player.

Reared in the western North Carolina community of Deep Gap, Arthel “Doc” Watson is an internationally treasured interpreter of Appalachian music as well as an acclaimed innovative guitarist. Born March 2, 1923, and blind from infancy, Watson is the product of a musical family. His mother sang traditional ballads while she worked around the house, his father played the banjo, and other family members and friends regularly joined in music making at the Watson home. At age six, Watson took an interest in music, starting with the harmonica, on which he played familiar church songs. When he was nine years old, his father made him a fretless banjo, and by age thirteen Watson (“Doc” was a nickname he acquired as an adult) had begun playing the guitar.

Watson’s guitar playing was initially influenced by thumb-and-finger-style guitarists such as Merle Travis, Riley Puckett, and Maybelle Carter. He first played music publicly in the early 1950s, when he joined a local popular music group and started experimenting with playing fiddle lines on the electric guitar. In the late 1950s, musician friends Clint Howard and Fred Price introduced Watson to well-known banjo player and singer Clarence “Tom” Ashley. In 1960 folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came to western North Carolina to record Ashley and in the process met and heard Watson, who was providing guitar accompaniment. The resulting album, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s, spread Watson’s reputation outside the region. The following year, Watson and Ashley performed in New York together, and by 1963 Watson’s solo career had been launched, sparked by the enthusiastic response to his performance at the New- port Folk Festival that year. Two years later, Watson’s only son, Merle, also a talented guitar player, joined him, and the duo delighted audiences across the country and abroad for two decades. In 1972 Doc Watson expanded his following after appearing as a guest musician on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s best-selling Will the Circle Be Unbroken album. Merle Watson was killed in a farming accident in 1985. Doc Watson continued to record and perform both as a solo act backed by one or more accompanists and in collaboration with other notable musicians.

In addition to gaining worldwide popularity and acclaim as one of the most accomplished and influential acoustic flat-pick guitarists, Watson was the recipient of numerous awards, including five Grammy Awards, an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina, and the National Medal of the Arts.

Doc Watson died on May 29, 2012.

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MLA Style

"Doc Watson," Encyclopedia of Appalachia, 2017, Encyclopedia of Appalachia. 22 Oct 2017 <http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=208>

APA Style

"Doc Watson." (2017) In Encyclopedia of Appalachia, Retrieved October 22, 2017, from Encyclopedia of Appalachia: http://www.encyclopediaofappalachia.com/entry.php?rec=208

Doc Watson