Doc Watson Biography

American country singer, guitarist, and banjoist
Watson’s flat-picking approach to the guitar became integral to bluegrass. His sagacious avuncular presence coats all old and new music—from ballads, to blues, to rockabilly—with a patina of deep-rooted tradition.

March 2, 1923; Stoney Fork Township, North Carolina
Also known as:
Arthel Lane Watson (full name) Member of:
The Doc Watson Family Principal recordings
albums: The Doc Watson Family, 1963; Doc Watson, 1964; Treasures Untold, 1964; Doc Watson and Son, 1965; Home Again, 1966; Southbound, 1966; Ballads from Deep Gap, 1967; Strictly Instrumental, 1967; Doc and Merle Watson’s Guitar Album, 1972; The Elementary Doctor Watson!, 1972; Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. I, 1972 (with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others); Then and Now, 1973; Memories, 1975; Doc and the Boys, 1976; The Doc Watson Family: Tradition, 1977; Lonesome Road, 1977; Look Away, 1978; Red Rocking Chair, 1981; Down South, 1984; Riding the Midnight Train, 1986; Portrait, 1987; Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II, 1989 (with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others); On Praying Ground, 1990; Songs for Little Pickers, 1990; Remembering Merle, 1992; Songs from the Southern Mountains, 1994; Docabilly, 1995; Doc and Dawg, 1997; Mel, Doc, and Del, 1997; Third Generation Blues, 1999; Legacy, 2002; Round the Table Again, 2002; Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. III, 2002 (with the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and others); The Three Pickers, 2003.

The Life
Arthel Lane Watson was sixth of nine children of General Dixon and Nancy Anne Watson. By the second year of his life, Watson had lost his vision to an eye infection. General Watson was a farmer and a song leader in church, while Nancy Anne was a housewife who sang around the house. His parents as well as a number of Watson’s neighbors were musical repositories of traditional material. From his motherWatson heard such old hymns as “There Is a Fountain” and “The Lone Pilgrim.” Watson’s first instrument was the diatonic harmonica; his father bought him one each year as a Christmas present after he turned six. When he was about ten, Watson received his first banjo, a fretless homemade version that his father built and on which he taught the young Arthel his first banjo tune, “Reuben’s Train,” which continued as a fixture in Watson’s performances.

In the mid-1930’s the Watson family acquired their first radio and record player. Radio exposed Watson to the music of such country artists as the Blue Sky Boys, the Monroe Brothers, J. D. Mainer, the Delmore Brothers, andMerle Travis. The family had an eclectic collection of records that included Tin Pan Alley balladeer Gene Austin backed by a guitarist, alternating-thumb-style blues guitarist Mississippi John Hurt, and the works of country guitar pioneers Riley Puckett, Maybelle Carter, and Jimmie Rodgers. These musicians as well as the Delmore Brothers and Travis inspired Watson’s development on guitar, the instrument with which he is most strongly associated.

At age ten Watson started attending the Raleigh School for the Blind. Not interested in either classical music or the piano, Watson had not taken up the musical training available at that school. Still, with some basic instruction on guitar from his friend Paul Montgomery, Watson showed some talent, and his father bought Watson his first guitar. In the 1940’s Watson occasionally played music on the street in Boone and Wilkesboro. His first paid musical job was performing at the American Legion House in Boone with Charlie Osborne’s square dance band. At eighteen Watson picked up his famous nickname “Doc” when he appeared with Paul Greer on a radio show in Lenoir, North Carolina, and broadcast on WHKY, Hickory. In 1947 Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of legendary local fiddler Gaither Carlton. Around 1953 Watson joined Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen, a country-and-western swing band, and soon acquired a Gibson Les Paul electric guitar.

Missing a fiddler, the band relied on Watson to play the lead on interpretations of fiddle tunes. Taking his cue from country session musicians Hank Garland and Grady Martin, Watson developed a style that, when transposed to acoustic guitar, became known as country flat-pick guitar.

In 1960 Smithsonian curator and folk revival musician Ralph Rinzler traveled to Mountain City, Tennessee, to record Clarence “Tom” Ashley, a banjo player who had previously recorded in 1929.

Watson was among the cream of area musicians Ashley invited for the sessions. Impressed by Watson’s musicianship and deep traditional roots, Rinzler persuaded the younger musician to accompany Ashley to major folk revival venues in the North. Following well-received solo performances in 1963 at the Newport and Berkeley Folk Festivals and a concert with Bill Monroe in 1964 at the Town Hall in New York City, Watson became a darling of the folk revival and was signed to a contract with Vanguard Records. Joined that summer by his fifteen- year-old son Merle, Watson traveled and recorded prolifically on the folk revival circuit.

By 1968 folk rock had displaced acoustic folk revival music, and Watson followed the lead of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, and Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs to Nashville studios, recording an album enhanced by electric instruments and drums (to which Watson was not alien, having honed his guitar skills in an electrified country dance band). With acoustic folk music’s popularity on the wane, Watson’s career was at a low ebb when he appeared alongside country music legends Maybelle Carter, Roy Acuff, Merle Travis, and Jimmy Martin on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle Be Unbroken, a seminal three-disc collaboration between early commercial country and contemporary folk-rock musicians.

The album was exceptionally successful with a rock audience that was just beginning to appreciate country music through country-rock amalgams and proved a shot in the arm for Watson’s career.

A similar audience of literate roots-conscious audiences has since supported his career.

The Watsons, with T. Michael Coleman on bass and other musicians, traveled continuously and recorded a number of commercially and critically successful albums, in the process earning four Grammy Awards.

After Merle’s death in a tractor accident in October, 1985, Doc Watson resumed his career with Merle’s protege, Jack Lawrence, on second guitar. He has occasionally been joined by Merle’s son, Richard, an accomplished bluesinfluenced flat-pick guitarist like his father. Watson is also the patron saint at MerleFest, one of the largest roots music festivals in North America held in memory of his son each year since 1988 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

The Music
Folkways Records’ The Doc Watson Family emphasized Watson’s deep traditional roots and betrayed the disparate soils feeding those roots—Old World ballads, regional native ballads, blues ballads, widespread as well as local fiddle tunes, banjo tunes, Baptist hymns, and the blues.

From 1964 to 1967, when Watson continuously traveled across the country to play at folk revival venues, almost each year Vanguard released two of his albums, which largely stuck to a spare acoustic sound. The quality of Watson’s performances and recordings would stay sturdily consistent for the next four decades. In Doc Watson and Son, he found an exceptionally able accompanist and partner in his sonMerle, who continued to be his father’s road and musical companion until his accidental death in 1985.

Held in high esteem by acoustic musicians, Watson has collaborated with many and appeared on recordings alongside such stalwarts as Monroe, Flatt and Scruggs, Mac Wiseman, Chet Atkins, Jean Ritchie, Ricky Skaggs, and Bryan Sutton. He has also appeared on cross-genre collaborative albums with Dan Fogelberg, Michelle Shocked, the Chieftains, and James Cotton.

Doc Watson.
On Watson’s first solo album for Vanguard Records, he appears without accompanist.

The album features the first recording of Watson’s signature flat-pick guitar adaptation of the fiddle tune “Black Mountain Rag,” which forever changed the role of the guitar in traditional American music. Emulating the constant sawing motion typical of Appalachian fiddle playing on up-tempo tunes, Watson devised an unrelenting, strictly alternating plectrum or flat-pick motion that allowed transposition of fiddle and banjo tunes to the guitar and elevated the guitar to the role of a lead instrument.

On this album, this style is also featured on “Nashville Blues” and a version of the murder ballad “Tom Dooley,” which had been recorded by the Kingston Trio years earlier. Watson’s different version of the story and the music, however, were passed down from his own grandmother. The album also reveals Watson’s command of Travisstyle fingerpicking on his adaptation of the Delmore Brothers’ “Deep River Blues” and on another instrumental showcase, “Doc’s Guitar.” On “Little Omie Wise” and “St. James’s Hospital,” both later standards in his repertoire, Watson accompanies himself with continuously cascading fingerpicked rolls that are rarely heard in his later work with accompanists.

On “Georgie Buck” and Doc Boggs’s “Country Blues,” he accompanies himself on frailing banjo. An all-round entertainer, Watson includes two comical songs, “Intoxicated Rat” and “Born About Six Thousand Years Ago,” the latter also featuring a rack-worn harmonica.

Although the quality of his previous work was unimpeachable, Southbound was exceptional in a number of respects. While on the preceding two albums, the young Merle had served as reliable accompanist, here he stepped up to assume the role of a second contrapuntal voice and also composer. Merle’s “Southbound” has since remained a centerpiece of Watson’s repertoire. With Southbound Watson’s talent for arranging and reinterpreting older and contemporary artists’ material and stamping it with his own personality became undeniable with his arrangements of John D. Loudermilk’s “Windy and Warm,” Mel Tillis’s “Walk on Boy,” Jimmie Driftwood’s “Tennessee Stud,” Leadbelly’s “Alberta,” the Delmore Brothers’ “Blue Railroad Train,” and Tom Paxton’s “Last Thing on My Mind.” The instrumentals “Sweet Georgia Brown” and “Nothing to It” also helped bring swing-based instrumentals into the acoustic flatpick guitar repertoire.

Then and Now.
With this album, Watson established himself with the audience that favored roots music played acoustically, a niche market that developed after folk influences had been sidelined by mainstream rock. With an enhanced sound featuring drums, bass, pedal steel guitar, and also subtle washes of strings on some tracks, the album proved once again that the Watsons were not strict folk purists, and they could subtly dress up innovation with an overall traditional aura. The core of the album featured full-band interpretations of a number of songs from the African American repertoire, including “Matchbox Blues,” “Milkcow Blues,” “Frankie and Johnny,” “Corrina Corrina,” and many other songs interpreted in styles that emphasized the blues influence on hillbilly music.

Musical Legacy
Watson’s legacy is manifold. With an immediately recognizable magisterial baritone, he could have had an exceptional career as a popular vocalist.

His additional strong instrumental talents with straight harp, cross harp, clawhammer banjo, and alternating-thumb fingerpicking guitar made him an exceptional solo entertainer on folk-revival stages and then in country-folk music and Americana circuits. His innovative flat-pick guitar stylings, however, have mesmerized three generations of audiences and musicians around the world. That guitar style became integral to progressive, and even traditional, bluegrass music and begat a worldwide fraternity of flat-pick guitarists and enthusiasts. Some of his followers might have equaled and arguably surpassed him with regard to facility on the guitar, but unchallenged is Watson’s stature as the embodiment of constantly innovative but sturdily traditional music making. The Presidential Medal for the Arts (1997), a National Heritage Fellowship (1988), and a National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences (NARAS) Lifetime Achievement Award presented at the 2004 Grammy Awards are just some of the official recognitions Watson has received for his contributions to American music. ¶