Remembering the great Doc Watson

Doc Watson (real name Arthel Lane Watson) the great traditional country and old time music guitar player and singer died on 29th May aged 89.  His playing influenced countless musicians including Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, Clarence White of The Byrds and Ricky Skaggs.

Known as the Godfather of ‘flat pickers’ he was the sixth of nine children, Doc was born on 3rd March, 1923 at Stoney Fork, North Carolina, into a poor farming family and grew up in the town of Deep Gap. He lost his sight due to an undiagnosed infection at the age of two.

 He began playing harmonica and then took up the banjo. Ho took up the guitar aged 13 and soon began learning songs he heard on Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and on 78rpm records.

 After leaving school, with his older brother he began busking on street corners, and aged 17 he began playing with a string band on local radio, where an announcer gave him the nickname ‘Doc’.

 Influenced by the great Nashville session guitarist Grady Martin, Doc adapted high speed fiddle tunes on his electric guitar. During the 1950s he joined a dance band, playing a mix of honky-tonk, country,swing and square dance music. He also played in local rockabilly bands.

 In 1960 he was discovered by the folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who had travelled to North Carolina to record the singer and banjo player Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley. Doc was one of the musicians recruited by Ashley for the session.

Rinzler persuaded Doc to play an acoustic guitar and traditional country music, and arranged bookings for him on the folk festival circuit. His virtuoso renditions of traditional country favourites caused a sensation.

In 1964 he was joined by his teenage son Merle on second guitar, recording and performing ‘traditional plus’ which, as he explained, meant “the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play”.

The pair produced albums including ‘Doc Watson and Son’ in 1965 and ‘Southbound’ cut in 1966, featuring Jimmie Driftwood’s ‘Tennessee Stud’ and the Chet Atkins instrumental ‘Windy And Warm’. In 1972 they featured on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s classic ‘Will The Circle Be Unbroken’ which sold more than a million copies.

 In 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident and Doc gave up touring. In 1988 he founded the ‘MerleFest’ musical festival at Wilkesboro, North Carolina, now one of America’s major folk festivals.

 Doc cut over 60 albums, of which seven won Grammy awards. He also won a Grammy lifetime achievement award and received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Excellent tribute to Doc Watson in Rolling Stone

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