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American Folk Legend Doc Watson Dies

Master flatpicker Doc Watson performs at the annual Merlefest at Wilkes Comunity College in Wilkesboro, N.C. (2001 file photo)
American folk and roots music performer Doc Watson died on May 29 of complications from abdominal surgery.

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For more than five decades, Watson entertained audiences around the world with an eclectic repertoire that included elements of folk, blues, Country, bluegrass, rockabilly, and even jazz. A master of the contemporary flat-pick guitar style, the eight-time Grammy Award winner influenced generations of musicians in rock, country and folk.

Born Arthel Lane Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina, his first love was the traditional music of the Blue Ridge Mountain region. In his early childhood, he contracted an illness which caused permanent blindness, a handicap that directed his interests toward music. Watson was also inspired by his father, a multi-instrumentalist, who bought his first harmonica and taught him to play the banjo. He got his first lessons on the guitar while attending the School For The Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina. Watson loved to tell the story of how that experience earned him his own guitar.

"My father was sitting at the breakfast table drinking his last cup of coffee before he went to work and I was fooling with a borrowed guitar that one of my brothers had there," Watson recalled. "And he said, 'Son, if you learn a song on that by the time I get back this evening from work, we'll buy you one on Saturday.' Well, what he didn't know was a friend of mine at the school I was going to over in Raleigh had taught me a few chords and I could pick and sing that thing when he got back. And he said, 'I guess I'll have to keep my word.'"

At age 17, Doc Watson made his performing debut at a fiddler's convention in Boone, North Carolina. That led to appearances at other local functions and on various radio programs. Doc's concerts were often called "short courses in the history of American music." His popularity grew in the early 1960's, and in 1964, reached a national level following a performance at the Newport Folk Festival in Rhode Island. That same year, he was signed to Vanguard Records. He once said his ultimate goal was to be a recording artist.

"I always wanted to be professional enough to do some records," he explained. " I never thought about having any sort of countrywide or worldwide recognition in the music world. My dad put me to work when I was 13 instead of letting me sit in the corner on the other end of the saw and that started me. And my sweet little wife Rosalee took my hand and helped me with enough courage to get out and make a living."

Doc Watson talks to Elvis Costello at MerleFest in 2007 (VOA/Katherine Cole)
Doc Watson talks to Elvis Costello at MerleFest in 2007 (VOA/Katherine Cole)
In 1965, Doc Watson added his 15-year-old son Merle to his act. For the next two decades, Merle's slide and acoustic guitar accompaniment were featured on several albums and at nearly all of his live shows. At age 36, Merle died in a farming accident, a tragedy that led to his semi-retirement in the late-1980's. In 1988, Watson honored his son’s memory by founding the annual roots music festival MerleFest.

Although he chose to spend less time on the road, Doc continued to record in the 1990's. The bond he felt with his audience transcended into the recording studio.

"You think about 'Well, if I do this well, a lot of people of going to buy this record and they're going to listen to it.' You've got an audience there though you don't see them and you can't reach out and shake hands with them. They're there in the future as you will. You know if you do the record well, once people begin to hear it, they'll buy it and that's your audience," he said.

Doc Watson at MerleFest in 2007 (VOA/Katherine Cole)
Doc Watson at MerleFest in 2007 (VOA/Katherine Cole)
In 1995, Doc returned to his musical roots with the album, Docabilly. Some of the artists he influenced, including Marty Stuart, Duane Eddy and guit-steel player Junior Brown, were featured on the critically-acclaimed collection of 1950's rockabilly tunes. Two of Doc’s albums crossed over to the Billboard 200 chart, including his 2003 Grammy-nominated release, The Three Pickers. The album also featured Earl Scruggs and Ricky Skaggs.

Doc Watson was awarded the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997. In 2004, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.

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