Born on March 3, 1923 in Stoney Fork Township near Deep Gap, North Carolina, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson left this earthly realm Tuesday, May 29, 2012. A fall at his home and abdominal surgery took its toll on this 89 year old.
The extraordinarily talented folk artist lost his vision at an early age, but made monumental contributions to the preservation and performance of bluegrass music. Fellow musicians were intimidated by his flatpicking, which included playing fiddle parts on guitar when there was no fiddler present at a performance. His singular abilities notwithstanding, Doc comported himself humbly, as an ordinary man.
Recording Doc at his home in North Carolina in 1960 for Folkways, the late Ralph Rinzler of the Smithsonian Institution encouraged Doc to extend his audience outreach. At first Doc could not believe anyone would be interested in hearing him play. Rinzler’s advice was right, and the world embraced Watson’s abilities.
The death of his son and performance partner, Eddy Merle, almost caused Doc to put down his guitar forever. The eventual outcome, however, was the creation of Merlefest as a musical memorial.
Doc’s career gained him a host of prestigious awards including the National Endowment for the Arts Heritage Fellowship, the National Medal of Arts presented by President Clinton, 7 Grammy Awards including a Lifetime Achievement Award during the 2004 Grammy presentations, and the Bluegrass Hall of Fame in 2000. Doc received an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina-Asheville in 2009.
Awards notwithstanding, Doc Watson was a man whose intelligence and modest character were admired as was his musicianship. A statue was dedicated to Watson in Boone, North Carolina on the corner of King and Depot Street in June, 2011. He wanted to be remembered as “just one of the people.”
Barry Bergey, Director of Folk and Traditional Arts for the National Endowment for the Arts, recalled:
I first presented Doc and Merle back in the mid-1970’s at Washington University in St. Louis. He was always a gentle soul whose warm and genuine nature came through both in his music and in his stage presence. George Holt was planning a final concert and tribute symposium for Doc at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh at the end of June. I guess that now it will be a tribute instead.
This resident of the mountains of Deep Gap, NC was truly and officially a national treasure. Take your rest, Doc Watson. Thank you for the joy you have given so many.