Bluegrass music legend Doc Watson dies at 89

Doc Watson, the blind guitar player who enjoyed a 50-year career in folk, country and bluegrass music, has died. He was 89.
Music legend Doc Watson, shown performing at the annual Merlefest at Wilkes Comunity College in Wilkesboro, N.C, died Tuesday. He was 89. (Alan Marler/Associated Press)

Doc Watson, the blind guitar player who enjoyed a 50-year career in folk, country and bluegrass music, has died. He was 89.

Mitchell Greenhill said in a news release that Watson died Tuesday at Wake Forest Baptist Hospital Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. A hospital spokeswoman also confirmed Watson's death.

The multiple Grammy winner was known for his flatpicking guitar style, but also was a master of the fingerpicking style and played both banjo and harmonica.

He also founded Merlefest, an annual festival of bluegrass and folk music in Wilkesboro, N.C., named after his son.

Watson is known for his versions of Deep River Blues, Black Mountain Rag and Shady Grove, songs he used to teach younger players about his techniques and for his popular folk recordings with Will The Circle Be Unbroken.

Watson was born Arthel Lane Watson on March 3, 1923, near Deep Gap, N.C., in the Appalachian Mountains. He lost his sight at the age of one from an eye infection.

His family was musical, and Watson learned to play banjo at age 11 on an instrument made by his father.

He attended the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh as a teenager, where he learned a few guitar chords from a friend. He loved the sound and was very keen to own a guitar.

He often told the story of earning $10 from sawing wood to buy his own guitar from Sears and Roebuck. He played music with his older brother Linny and they were asked to perform on a local radio show.

'Call him Doc'

The announcer there thought the name "Arthel" was too stuffy and suggested that he should change it. When someone in the audience shouted, "Call him Doc," the name stuck. The Watson brothers played songs from brother acts such as the Louvin Brothers and Monroe Brothers.

Doc Watson married in 1947 and was able to support his family, which soon included two children, by making music.

In the 1950s, he worked primarily in a country dance band led by Johnson, Tenn.-based pianist Jack Williams. Watson played an electric Gibson Les Paul model guitar but figured how to adapt the sound of the instrument to play fiddle tunes at square dances.

In the 1960s, the American folk revival focused attention on the kind of acoustic music that Watson learned as a teen. His deep baritone voice lent resonance to the traditional mountain ballads that had come into vogue, including Tom Dooley and Rising Sun Blues.

He played on his first recording, Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's. Musicologist Ralph Rinzler, an expert in traditional music, advised him to tour as a solo performer and he began playing at universities and coffee houses across the U.S.

"I suspect if it hadn't been for Ralph's encouragement, I wouldn't be on the musical scene as a professional," Watson said in a 2006 interview on NPR. "Ralph helped me very much. He travelled with me a lot in the early days and taught me a whole lot about how to program sets from the stage until you got to where it's automatic; you don't even have to think about it. He encouraged me an awful lot."

Newport Folk Festival breakthrough

His big break came with an appearance in 1963 at the Newport Folk Festival in Newport, R.I. He won rave reviews and began to have a wide following. His first solo album came out in 1964.

That same year, he began performing with his son, Merle, who also played guitar. They performed together until 1985, when Merle died in a tractor accident on the family farm. With bass guitarist T. Michael Coleman, who joined them in 1974, they toured the globe.

Father and son also recorded 20 albums, including Grammy winners Then and Now, Two Days In November and Big Sandy/Leather Britches.

Watson was heartbroken at his son's death

"I didn't just lose a good son," he says. "I lost the best friend I'll ever have in this world."

Watson had been playing Gallagher Guitars since 1968 and the company created a line, called the Doc Watson line, to meet his specifications. In 1991, it created a personal cutaway guitar for him.

The book The Legacy of Doc Watson combines Watson's stories about traditional songs with instruction on how to play them. Blind But Now I See, an unauthorized biography of Watson, was published in 2010.

Watson continued to tour and play on the country and bluegrass circuit. He teamed up with Randy and Earl Scruggs to record Keep on the Sunny Side as a fundraiser in 1994.

In 2000, Watson was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Owensboro, Ky. In 1997, Watson received the National Medal of Arts for lifetime achievement.

With files from The Associated Press