Arthel "Doc" WatsonMarch 06, 2012
(Singer, Songwriter, Guitar, Banjo)
Given Name: Arthel Watson
Date of Birth: March 2, 1923
Place of Birth: Deep Gap, North Carolina
Married: Rosa Lee Carlton
Children: Eddy Merle (dec’d), Nancy
Arthel "Doc" Watson is credited as being one of the first to develop the modern style of flatpicking guitar. Born into a musical family, Watson began playing the banjo as a boy, but quickly picked up the guitar at age 13. Most, if not all, his performances until 1953 were simply for family and friends. That year, Watson met pianist Jack Williams (Erwin, Tenn.) and joined Williams' rockabilly/swing band, staying with the group for the next seven years. The folk revival of the 1960s saw Watson performing full-time and recording his first sessions as a solo act.
Watson was soon joined by his son Merle an accomplished guitarist in his own right. Merle was killed tragically in a tractor accident in 1985, an event that caused Watson to drop out of the music scene for a time. However, he returned to the circuit, performing with guitarist Jack Lawrence and grandson Richard Watson, as well as bassist T. Michael Coleman, among others. Watson was also the host of the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival, held the last week of April in Wilkesboro, N.C.
Doc Watson had been playing music for decades before coming to the attention of 60s audiences during the Folk song revival of the 1960s.
He was surrounded by music from birth, his mother singing him to sleep with traditional ballads, and as he grew older he would listen to her singing to the younger children, his grandmother singing as she worked and his father singing hymns before bedtime.
Doc was blinded by a condition that restricted blood flow to his eyes, when he was an infant. Each Christmas he received a new harmonica, and when he was 10, his father made him a fretless banjo. At about that time, he began attending the School for the Blind in Raleigh, North Carolina.
When Doc was 13, his father bought him a guitar and within six months, Doc and his older brother Linney were performing together; and at 17, Doc played at a fiddlers’ convention. In 1947, Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of fiddler Gaither W. Carlton. For more than a decade, Doc played mostly Country and Western music in public, but continued traditional music for his own entertainment.
In 1953, he played electric guitar in the band of Jack Williams, performing in a variety of musical styles with the band for eight years. In 1960, Doc went to New York with the Clarence Ashley String Band. There he made such an impact that he was booked into Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village, where he began to attract a following among the young. Ralph Rinzler and others in the Folk song revival persuaded Doc to switch to acoustic guitar exclusively, and this change was followed by his ascending to national acclaim.
In 1961 and 1963, Doc recorded two albums with Clarence Ashley that propelled him to the forefront of the 1960s Folk movement. Unlike many of the Folk revival era, Doc’s fame didn’t decline with the revival, and he continued to be a recording star.
In 1973, Doc won a Grammy for "Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording". The following year, he and his talented son Merle won the same award. They won another Grammy in 1979 for "Best Country Instrumental Performance." In 1985, Merle was killed in a tractor accident on his farm, and although Jack Lawrence became Doc’s accompanist, Merle’s playing was definitely missed. A film, Doc and Merle, dealing with their careers, was released in 1986 and that year, Doc received the North Carolina Award for his "consummate artistry as a performer and interpreter of the traditional Folk music of the rural South."