Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away in 2012 at the age of 89. Today would have been the iconic musician’s 99th birthday. We’re celebrating by looking back at his life and legacy.
Doc Watson’s story sounds like the kind of inspirational tale that only Hollywood could cook up. He was born in a rural Appalachian community called Deep Gap near Boone, North Carolina. As an infant, an eye infection caused by contaminated eye drops rendered him blind. However, that didn’t stop him from living a full life, working on his family’s farm, and becoming one of the greatest guitarists to ever emerge from the United States.
Today, people lay several titles at the feet of the late, great Doc Watson. He was a fearless improviser, the father of the flatpicking guitar style, a preserver and performer of American musical traditions, and an American icon. He had a profound impact on countless modern bluegrass, Americana, and country musicians. However, if you asked Doc, he would tell you he was “Just one of the people,” a motto that is now etched into the memorial statue of him that stands in downtown Boone, North Carolina.
Recently, I had a conversation with award-winning educator and folklorist Dr. Ted Olson about Doc Watson. He, Mason Williams, and award-winning producer Scott Billington teamed up with Craft Recordings to compile Life’s Work: A Retrospective, a box set that encompasses Doc’s long and illustrious musical career. Additionally, Dr. Olson wrote the liner notes for the collection which read like an in-depth biography of Watson. He interviewed many who knew, toured with, or assisted Doc to get the full story.
With the liner notes from Life’s Work and my interview with Dr. Olson as a guide, we’re going to walk down Doc Watson’s road to fame in celebration of what would’ve been his 99th birthday.
Doc Watson’s Early Days
Doc Watson received his first instrument as a Christmas gift at the age of six. However, it wasn’t a guitar. Instead, it was a harmonica. In fact, Doc got a harmonica for Christmas every year until he was eleven. If you listen to his music, you’ll hear Doc play the harmonica with the same vigor and prowess as any other instrument he picked up.
At the age of 11, Doc Watson received his first banjo. It was a handmade maple wood fretless banjo. Doc’s father made the drumhead of the banjo from the tanned skin of his grandmother’s recently deceased pet cat. Less than a year later, young Doc picked up his first guitar and fell in love. Shortly thereafter his father bought him a $12 Stella six-string acoustic.
Not long after that, Doc Watson started playing on the streets in Boone, North Carolina and surrounding areas. Soon, he bought a Martin D28 on credit at a music store and saved tips he earned from playing on the streets to pay it off. He was well on his way to being the guitar maestro that we know and love today.
According to Dr. Olson, three major events pushed Doc Watson to fame. With each event, he reached a new level of notoriety.
By the 1950s, Doc Watson was locally known and beloved from his work with the Jack Williams Band in and around Johnson City, Tennessee. They recorded a couple of songs. You can hear one of them, “Pharaoh” on Life’s Work. At that time, Doc was playing a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop electric guitar. He didn’t even own an acoustic guitar.
In 1960 a nationally-known folklorist and musician named Ralph Rinzler traveled to the border country between North Carolina and Tennessee. He planned to capture some field recordings of Clarence Ashely and other musicians playing Appalachian string band music for Folkways Records. Ashely knew that Doc Watson needed to be in on those sessions. He said they’d loan Doc an acoustic because “he could play anything.”
Those recordings were released in 1961 as Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s. About that record, Dr. Olson said, “ it was an instant hit among folk music fans across the country in the urban folk music revival. Suddenly, his dexterity and prowess on the guitar and his beautiful voice were known outside of his local community because of that album.”
Doc Watson Plays the Newport Folk Festival
After cutting that record, Doc Watson toured the country as part of a string band. However, in 1963 he emerged as a solo act at the Newport Folk Festival. About this monumental performance, Dr. Olson said, “He played two solo guitar instrumental numbers. One featured flatpicked guitar and the other featured fingerstyle guitar. So, both of his guitar styles were showcased for the huge audience at the festival. As anyone can hear on that record, it sounded like thousands of people standing and clapping, hooting and hollering, and wanting more.”
Both of those songs, “Doc’s Guitar (Tickling the Strings)” and “Black Mountain Rag” appear on Life’s Work in a single track.
From 1964 on, Doc Watson star as a solo recording artist rose steadily. Additionally, he toured and later recorded with his son Merle Watson.
Will the Circle Be Unbroken
The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken boosted the popularity of many old-time artists by introducing them to a whole new generation of listeners. According to Dr. Olson, “Nitty Gritty Dirt Band did a lot to popularize American musical traditions. They decided to do an album where they actually recorded with their heroes – masters of old-time, country. and bluegrass music.” Doc Watson was among those masters.
Doc Watson and Nitty Gritty Dirt Band cut a few songs together for that record. However, their rendition of the Jimmy Driftwood song “Tennessee Stud” was the most popular. In fact, it was the most popular track on the album. They didn’t release the song as a single. However, it got more airplay than any other song from Will the Circle Be Unbroken.
After “Tennessee Stud” became popular, Doc and Merle Watson became a headlining act that packed stadiums across the country. At this point, Doc was an American icon.
Doc Watson was one of the greatest guitarists to walk the earth. As a result, you can still hear his influence in musicians like Billy Strings, Tony Rice, and countless others. However, he didn’t just influence those that loved his music. Watson also taught guitar lessons for kids at a music store in Boone, North Carolina.
More than that, though, as Dr. Olson put it, “Doc was dedicated to the music and the tradition behind it. The stories behind the music meant as much to him as the music itself. He remained in Deep Gap, North Carolina his entire life, and his Appalachian roots were profoundly important to him. Watson was an unofficial ambassador for Appalachia as he toured the world. He loved the region and played music that was rooted here. He delivered it to the world in a way that was both universal and masterful.”
Today, MerleFest, named for Merle Watson who passed away in the eighties, is a kind of memorial for both he and Doc. It is a distinctly Appalachian music festival that draws in countless fans from around the world.
Doc has been gone for a decade now, but his massive catalog and undeniable influence on American music will live on forever.
Be sure to check out our playlist Doc Watson: Just One of the People. While you’re there, follow Outsider on Spotify to get all the best music from our favorite artists.