In the latter half of the 20th century there were three pre-eminently influential folk/country guitar players: Merle Travis, Chet Atkins, and Arthel "Doc" Watson, a flat-picking genius from Deep Gap, NC. Unlike the other two, Watson was in middle age before gaining any attention. Since 1960, though, when Watson was recorded with his family and friends in Folkways' Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's, people have remained in awe of this gentle blind man who sings and picks with a pure and emotional authenticity. The present generation, folkies and country pickers alike, including Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, the late Clarence White, Emmylou Harris, and literally hundreds of others, acknowledge their great debt to Watson. Watson has provided a further service to folk/country by his encyclopedic knowledge of many American traditional songs. While Travis and Atkins started on acoustic guitars and moved to electric, before Watson's "discovery" during the folk revival in the early '60s, he played electric in a local all-purpose band that played current rock, swing, country, and of course folk music. He gained recognition gradually, first from the Clarence Ashley album, which led to a rave performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. Folkways soon recorded an album of Watson, followed in 1964 by a series of albums by Vanguard, nearly one a year through the decade. No sooner had interest in folk music waned than Watson was back in great demand because of the three-disc Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a watershed album in 1972 that was created by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. It featured Watson, Travis, Roy Acuff, and a who's who of country greats. Merle, Watson's son and a talent in his own right, began appearing with his father regularly. The result was good enough for them to win two Grammys for traditional music, in 1973 and 1974. Father and son played beautiful music together for over 15 years, until Merle died tragically on the family farm in 1985. Following his son's death, Doc continued with his appearances, showcasing his beautiful voice, his great instrumental talent, and his mastery of traditional material. He is an American treasure.
Early in his childhood in Deep Gap, Watson was struck by an illness that restricted the bloodflow to his eyes, resulting in his blindness at an early age. As a child, he was surrounded by music and was given a new harmonia every Christmas. When he was ten, his father gave him a homemade fretless banjo, which Doc played consistently for the next three years. Around the same time he picked up the banjo, Watson began attending the School for the Blind in Raleigh, NC. At the age of 13, Doc began playing guitar after being introduced to the instrument by his cousin. Six months after receiving his guitar, Doc and his older brother Linney began busking on street corners, singing traditional numbers. By his late teens, Watson had learned how to finger-pick from his neighbor Olin Miller.
In 1941, Watson joined a band that had a regular radio program in Lenoir, NC. It was at this show that he earned his nickname, once one of the announcers referred to the guitarist as "Doc" during the broadcast. For the next six years he played around North Carolina. In 1947, he married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of fiddler Gaither W. … Read More