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Doc Watson

Doc Watson at Sugar Grove Music Festival in 2009
Background information
Birth name Arthel Lane Watson
Also known as Doc Watson
Born March 3, 1923 (1923-03-03) (age 86)
Deep Gap, North Carolina US
Genres Blues, bluegrass, country, folk, Gospel
Occupations Musician, Singer-Songwriter
Instruments Vocals, guitar, banjo, harmonica
Labels Folkways, Vanguard, United Artists, Flying Fish, Sugar Hill

Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson (born March 3, 1923) is an American guitar player, songwriter and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues and gospel music. He has won seven Grammy awards as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. Watson's flatpicking skills and knowledge of traditional American music are highly regarded. He performed with his son Merle for over 15 years until Merle's death in 1985, in an accident on the family farm.[1][2][3]



Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina. According to Doc on his three CD biographical recording Legacy, he got the nickname "Doc" during a live radio broadcast when the announcer remarked that his given name Arthel was odd and he needed an easy nickname to go by. A fan in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" presumably in reference to the Sherlock Holmes sidekick Doctor Watson. The name stuck ever since.[4]

An eye infection caused Doc Watson to lose his vision before his first birthday. Despite this, he was taught by his parents to work hard and care for himself. He attended North Carolina's school for the visually impaired, The Governor Morehead School, in Raleigh, North Carolina.[5]

The first song Doc ever learned to play was "When Roses Bloom in Dixieland". His father was so proud that he took Doc to the store and bought him his first guitar, a $12 Stella. Doc proved to be a natural and within months he was performing on local street corners playing Delmore, Louvin and Monroe Brothers' duets alongside his brother Linny. By the time he reached his adult years Doc had become a prolific acoustic and electric guitar player.[6]

In 1947, Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of popular fiddle player Gaither Carlton. Doc and Rosa Lee had two children - Eddy Merle (named after country music legends Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) in 1949 and Nancy Ellen in 1951.[5]

In 1953, Doc joined the Johnson City, Tennessee-based Jack Williams' country and western swing band on electric guitar. The band seldom had a fiddle player, but were often asked to play for square dances. Following the example of country guitarists Grady Martin and Hank Garland, Doc taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his Les Paul electric guitar. He later transferred the technique to acoustic guitar, and playing fiddle tunes became part of his signature sound.[1][7] During his time with Jack Williams, Doc also supported his family as a piano tuner.

In 1960 as the American folk music revival grew, Doc took the advice of folk musicologist Ralph Rinzler and began playing acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively.[5] That move ignited Doc's career when he played on his first recording, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's. He also began to tour as a solo performer and appeared at universities and clubs like the Ash Grove in Los Angeles. Watson would eventually get his big break and rave reviews for his performance at the renowned Newport Folk Festival in 1963. He recorded his first solo album in 1964 and began performing with his son Merle the same year. The pair would tour and record together until 1985 when Merle was tragically killed in a tractor accident.[7]

After the folk revival waned during the late 1960s, Doc's career was sustained by his performance of "Tennessee Stud" on the 1972 live album recording Will the Circle Be Unbroken. As popular as ever, Doc and Merle began playing as a trio, with T. Michael Coleman on bass, in 1974. The trio toured the globe during the late seventies and early eighties, recorded nearly fifteen albums between 1973 and 1985, and brought Doc and Merle’s unique blend of acoustic music to millions of new fans.

Doc plays guitar in both flatpicking and fingerpicking style, but is best known for his flatpick work. His guitar playing skills, combined with his authenticity as a mountain musician, made him a highly influential figure during the folk music revival. He pioneered a fast and flashy bluegrass lead guitar style including fiddle tunes and crosspicking techniques which were adopted and extended by Clarence White, Tony Rice and many others. Watson is also an accomplished banjo player and in the past has accompanied himself on harmonica as well. Known also for his distinctive and rich baritone voice, he has over the years developed a vast repertoire of mountain ballads which he learned via the oral tradition of his home area in Deep Gap, North Carolina. His affable manner, humble nature and delightful wit have endeared him to his fans nearly as much as his musical talent has.

Doc played a Martin model D-18 guitar on his earliest recordings. In 1968 he began a relationship with Gallagher Guitars when he started playing their G-50 model. His first Gallagher, which Doc refers to as "Old Hoss", is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1974, Gallagher created a customized G-50 line to meet Doc's preferred specifications, which bears the Doc Watson name. In 1991, Gallagher customized a personal cutaway guitar for Doc that he plays to this day and refers to as "Donald" in honor of Gallagher guitar's second generation proprietor and builder, Don Gallagher.[8]

Merle Watson, c. 1979

In 1986 he received the North Carolina Award and in 1994 he received a North Carolina Folk Heritage Award. In 2000 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 1997, Doc received the National Medal of Arts from U.S. president Bill Clinton.[9]

In recent years, Watson has scaled back his touring schedule. As of 2007, he is generally joined on stage by his grandson (Merle's son) Richard, as well as longtime musical partners David Holt or Jack Lawrence. Recently, on June 19, he was accompanied by Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel at the Bass Performance Hall. He also, accompanied by Holt and his grandson, Richard, performed at Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in 2009, as he had done in several previous years.

He is host to the annual MerleFest music festival held every April at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival features a vast array of acoustic style music focusing on the folk, bluegrass, blues and old-time music genres. It is named in honor of Merle Watson and is one of the most popular acoustic music festivals in the world, drawing over 70,000 music fans each year.[10]



  1. ^ a b Miller, Dan (September 1998). "Doc Watson: Flatpicking Legend". Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Vol 2, No 6. Retrieved 2008-11-28.  
  2. ^ "Doc Watson Biography". Wilkes Community College. 2005. Retrieved 2009-03-09.  
  3. ^ Menconi, David (2003-03-02). "Doc of Ages". The News & Observer. Retrieved 2009-03-09.  
  4. ^ Doc Watson. (2002). Legacy. [CD].  
  5. ^ a b c Kaufman, Steve (1999). The Legacy of Doc Watson. Mel Bay Publications. pp. 152. ISBN 978-0-7866-3393-7.  
  6. ^ "Doc Watson". Chet Atkins: Mister Guitar - Books & Bios. Retrieved 2008-11-28.  
  7. ^ a b Havighurst, Craig (June 2003). "Living Legacy". Acoustic Guitar magazine. Retrieved November 20, 2009.  
  8. ^ Callow, John (January 1997). "Gallagher Guitars". Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, Vol 1, No 2. Retrieved 2008-11-28.  
  9. ^ Lifetime Honors: National Medal of Art, National Endowment for the Arts.
  10. ^

Grammy awards

External links

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