Doc Watson - Biography

By J Poet

Arthel “Doc” Watson, the most famous resident of Deep Gap, NC, may be the finest folk guitar picker America has ever produced. He was “discovered” by folklorist and former Greenbriar Boy Ralph Rinzler in 1960, when Rinzler visited Deep Gap to record folk and old time songs. Rinzler brought Watson back to New York City and Watson electrified the folk scene with his picking, singing and down home between song patter. With no promotion at all, Watson soon became the foremost folk/country/ blues/bluegrass/country blues stylist of the folk revival. He’s won seven folk and country Grammys, a Lifetime Achievement Award Grammy, a National Medal of the Arts (from President Clinton in 1994) and a National Heritage Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts. 


Doc Watson was born near Deep Gap, NC, on March 3, 1923, the sixth of nine children. Both parents were musical; his dad played the banjo, both parents sang in church and singing Gospel songs in harmony was a favorite family activity. An eye infection blinded Doc before he was a year old. He started playing harmonica at age five and learned banjo on an instrument his father made for him starting at 11. He started learning guitar at the North Carolina State School for the Blind in Raleigh, inspired by the country music on the 78 RPM records his friends had. One day he was fooling around on a borrowed guitar at home; his father told him that he’d buy him a guitar if Doc could learn to play a tune by the end of the day. His father bought him a guitar and by the time he was 18 he had a duo with his brother Linny singing the songs of the Monroe, Louvin and Delmore Brothers. At 19 he got a gig on a local radio station and when the announcer told him Arthel was too unwieldy a name, someone in the audience hollered “Call him Doc” and the name stuck.


In 1946 he married Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of Gaither Carlton, a famous local fiddler. In the 50s Watson supported his family playing in country dance bands playing electric guitar, but evenings he’d play tradition tunes with Tom “Clarence” Ashley, Clint Howard, Fred Price, and other friends. This group was playing a folk festival in 1960 when Rinzler heard them and invited them to New York to play at Gerde’s Folk City. It took three years to get the group to New York, but the buzz on the band started immediately. Folkways recorded them with Gaither Carlton on Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, Vol. 1 and 2 (1963 Folkways) and The Watson Family (1963 Folkways) but it was Doc’s solo appearance at the Newport Folk Festival of 1963 that made him a star. A 1964 date opening for Bill Monroe at Town Hall in New York led to a contract with Vanguard, which released the seminal albums that showed off Doc’s amazing range including Doc Watson (1964 Vanguard), Treasures Untold (1964 Vanguard), Doc Watson and Son with his son Merle on second guitar and harmony vocals (1965 Vanguard), Home Again (1966 Vanguard), Southbound (1966 Vanguard), Ballads from Deep Gap (1967 Vanguard), Old Timey Concert with Clint Howard and Fred Price (1967 Vanguard), and Doc Watson on Stage Featuring Merle Watson (1971 Vanguard). 


When Doc returned from his first Vanguard session, he found his son Merle (named after picker Merle Travis) had become a prodigious picker, teaching himself just as his father did. For the next 20 years they duo played together amazing audiences with their picking. They won Best Traditional Recording Grammys for Then and Now (1973 Tomato) and Two Days in November (1974 Poppy). The duo also cut Memories (1975 Sugar Hill), Lonesome Road (1977 United Artists), Look Away (1978 United Artists), the Grammy wining Live and Pickin’ (1979 Unitede Artists) Red Rocking Chair (1981 Flying Fish), Doc & Merle Watson’s Guitar Album (1983 Flying Fish), Riding the Midnight Train (1984 Sugar Hill) another Grammy winner and Pickin’ the Blues (1985 Flying Fish). Merle encouraged Doc to contribute to the groundbreaking Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken (1972 United Artists) and during those years Doc also cut the amazing Reflections (1980 Sugar Hill) a duo romp with Chet Atkins.


In late October 1985, Merle was out plowing a field when his tracker rolled over and crushed him to death. Doc was devastated and stopped playing for two years. In 1988, at the urging of friends, he staged a memorial concert for his son, which has evolved into MerleFest, one of the biggest acoustic music festivals in the world, still going strong today.


Slowly doc resumed his career, playing and recording, although not as prolifically as he did when Merle was alive. Highlights: The Grammy winning On Praying Ground (1990 Sugar Hill). Docabilly (1995 Sugar Hill) a rare electric guitar session covering rockabilly classics, Doc, Mac and Del (1997 Sugar Hill) cut with bluegrass legends Mac Wiseman and Del McCoury, Third Generation Blues (1999 Sugar Hill) with Merle’s son Richard Watson on second guitar and harmony vocals and Three Pickers (2003 Rounder) a PBS special with Earl Scruggs and Ricky Scaggs.


Anthologies abound, many with duplicated tracks. Best bets are: Best of Doc Watson 1964-68 (1999 Vanguard) or the comprehensive four CD set The Vanguard Years (1995 Vanguard), Trouble in Mind: Doc Watson Country Blues Collection (2003 Sugar Hill), Black Mountain Rag (2006 Rounder) a Doc and Merle retrospective, the Grammy winning three CD set Legacy (2001 High Windy Audio) credited to Doc Watson/David Holt. Watson’s most recent Best Instrumental Performance on a Song Grammy was for his participation on the track “Whiskey Before Breakfast” from Bryan Sutton’s Not Too Far From the Tree (2006 Sugar Hill). On May 29 2012, Doc Watson passed away after undergoing colon surgery.

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