The recipient of the National Medal of Arts, National Heritage Fellowship and eight Grammy Awards (including Lifetime Achievement), Doc Watson was a legendary largely-bluegrass performer who blended his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues to create a unique style and an expansive repertoire.
He is a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker, who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar. A discography of over fifty recordings includes, most recently, collaborations with his grandson Richard Watson and with David Holt.
Doc was born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, NC on March 3, 1923, into a family already rich in musical tradition. His mother, Annie Watson, sang traditional secular and religious songs, and his father, General Watson, played the banjo, which was Doc's first instrument, as well.
Then, at age thirteen he taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar, and his delighted father bought him a $12 Stella. He later picked up some chords from a fellow student at Raleigh School for the Blind, and began to incorporate material that he heard on records and the radio with the music of his heritage. Back home he played mostly with neighbors and family, among them fiddler Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947. They became parents of two children, Merle and Nancy Ellen.
It wasn't until 1953 at age thirty that he met Jack Williams, a local piano player, and began to play gigs for money. Doc played with Williams' rockabilly/swing band for seven years, a period and a style that he revisited in the recent album Docabilly. But he continued to play traditional music with his family and with his banjo playing neighbor, Clarence “Tom” Ashley. In 1960, spurred by the growing folk revival, Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley and heard Doc Watson in the process.
These sessions resulted in Doc's first recordings, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley's. A later recording, a collaboration with mandolinist David Grisman entitled Doc & Dawg, returns to this old-time pre-bluegrass style. In 1961 the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Doc, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a now-legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Doc gave his first solo performance at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village.
From then on, he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall. As the late sixties brought a waning of the folk revival, Doc's son Merle Watson provided the musical and emotional companionship that he needed to continue touring. With Merle playing guitar and banjo and serving as partner and driver, the father-son team expanded their audience nationwide.
After working for a while with the band Frosty Morn, they continued to tour with bassist T. Michael Coleman, and brought their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of remarkable recordings, including collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped make Watson the gold standard among traditional pickers.
Although he briefly stopped performing after Merle died in a 1985 tractor accident, Doc (accompanied by guitarist Jack Lawrence) now accepts a limited number of engagements.
For the last several years, he has hosted the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkesboro, where, surrounded by family and collaborators ranging from bandleader Jack Williams to grandson Richard Watson, he can give full breadth to his musical expression and still sleep in his own house, deep in the Carolina mountains, on land homesteaded by his great-great-grandfather.
Legendary North Carolina-born guitarist and singer Doc Watson received the National Medal of Arts on Monday, Sept. 29, 1997 in a ceremony at the White House hosted by President Bill Clinton. "There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive," said the President, "Who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson."