True bluegrass music is the kind of music that soaks into your bones. The fast-paced flat-picking of an acoustic guitar strums against your very heartstrings; it takes over your toes and demands they carry out the beat against the floorboards. It bends your lips into a smile and makes your eyes shine. That is, of course, if it’s performed by the right musician—a musician who pours his soul out through his fingers and into his strings. A musician like Doc Watson.
A mix of raw talent and sheer pluck pushed Doc Watson to overcome a host of challenges and become one of the most renowned guitar players and bluegrass musicians in history. On March 3, 1923, Arthel Lane Watson was born in the tiny settlement of Stoney Fork Township, just outside the slightly larger (but still tiny) town of Deep Gap, North Carolina. Born to a community and tradition steeped in music and its lore, Watson might have been destined from an early age for fame, but illness broke in on his road to destiny early on. Before his first birthday, Watson suffered from an eye infection that left him blind for the rest of his life. That, coupled with the remoteness of his home from traditional channels to fame, would have stalled the career of an ordinary musician long before it began. But Doc Watson was no ordinary musician.
Winner of seven Grammys, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award, Doc Watson became more than a successful career musician—he became a legend. And like most legendary figures, his history and story are shrouded in stories of epic and memorable proportions, stories that are just as fun when told around a campfire as through a microphone.
Take, for instance, the tale of how he came to own his first guitar. A young Watson and his brother were assigned a task by their father: chop down the chestnut trees along the rim of their property, sell the wood to the local tannery, and the profits were theirs to keep. With signature resolve, Watson joined his brother in the back-breaking labor, their axes thrown against a seemingly endless sea of bark and limbs. When they finally finished, Watson used his $10 to purchase a Stella guitar from Sears Roebuck. (His brother, on the other hand, invested in a fashionable, and short-lived, suit).
Watson’s dreams of learning to play guitar derived from the popular country-roots musicians of his youth—musicians like Jimmie Rodgers and The Carter Family—and it was with these musicians in mind that he learned to play. The first song he played on that Stella guitar, “When Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” was popularized by The Carter Family when he was a boy. Watson’s natural aptitude and passion for the git-fiddle was immediate, and within months he was playing country hits on the streets of nearby towns, his hat and case filling with spare change and his heart with the applause of crowds.
By the time he reached adulthood, Watson had become a proficient acoustic and electric guitar player and a savvy performer. He could entertain the crowds as easily as he could pick the chords of a favored tune, his affectionate demeanor, honed to a humble and agreeable warmth, drawing in listeners and fans. He easily booked gigs and radio shows, refining his sound and presence.
These formative years offer a wealth of those mythical tales, including the story of how he earned his name. According to legend, Watson was performing on one of his first radio programs, winning the crowd and deejays with his charm and skills, when the announcer critiqued Watson’s given name: according to the broadcaster, “Arthel” was too strange a name for a celebrity, and Watson should change it immediately in order to guarantee his path to success. The studio crowd immediately began shouting suggestions, and one voice rose above the din: “Call him Doc!” it proclaimed. The designation, apparently in reference to Sherlock Holmes’s famous sidekick Doctor Watson, stuck, and Arthel became Doc for the rest of his days.
Watson’s rise as a musician fortuitously coincided with the folk music revival of the 1960’s. He dropped the electric guitar, concentrating on the acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively, a move that helped fan the growing flames of his career and plant him soundly in the hearts of newly-minted folk fans. It was on February 11, 1961, when Watson performed at P.S. 41 in Greenwich Village, that Watson solidly embarked on his path. He began playing solo shows at universities and clubs, culminating in a momentous show at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963. His performance at the historic festival led directly to his first solo album in 1964. His legitimacy as a verified “mountain man,” his unparalleled sound and skills on the guitar, and his pure kindness and wit won the hearts of fans and hugely influenced the entire folk revival.
Watson began performing with his son, Merle, the same year he released his solo album. The duo gained credence and acclaim even after the waning of the folk revival. Their traditional style and sound—Appalachian ballads passed down through generations matched with fast-paced and wily guitar picking—adapted easily to popular opinion, even as it carved its own niche into the ever-expanding music market. Watson’s distinctive sound—a style honed early in his career, when he learned to play fiddle tunes on his guitar to satiate listeners at square dances—made their music both unique and timeless. Joined by Michael Coleman on bass guitar in the ’70’s, the Watsons played extensively and widely through the ’80’s, touring the world and producing fifteen albums.
Watson once said of his particular style, “When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.” This idea of “traditional plus” could be applied to so many facets of Watson’s life. A common man in the career of a celebrity; a musical prodigy with a humble spirit; a mountain man who explored the world. Watson was, in truth, a simple man, built on traditional tenets of kindness and humility, hard work, and charm. And it’s those features, not primarily his ability to perform for crowds or his vast knowledge of picking patterns, that made Doc Watson a musical legend.
DOC WATSON IN PERFORMANCE
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