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Folk musician Doc Watson dies at 89

WINSTON-SALEM, N.C. -- Doc Watson, the Grammy-award winning folk musician whose lightning-fast style of flatpicking influenced guitarists around the world for more than a half-century, died Tuesday at a hospital in Winston-Salem, according to a hospital spokeswoman and his management company. He was 89.

Watson, who was blind from age 1, recently had abdominal surgery that resulted in his hospitalization.

Arthel "Doc" Watson's mastery of flatpicking helped make the case for the guitar as a lead instrument in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was often considered a backup for the mandolin, fiddle or banjo. His fast playing could intimidate other musicians, even his own grandson, who performed with him.

Richard Watson said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press that his grandfather's playing had a humbling effect on other musicians. The ever-humble Doc Watson found it hard to believe.

"Everybody that's picked with you says you intimidate them, and that includes some of the best," Richard Watson told him.

Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923, in what is now Deep Gap, N.C., in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He lost his eyesight by the age of 1 when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named after his late son Merle.

According to the Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson took his nickname at age 19 when someone couldn't pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted "Call him Doc!" Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

"There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson," Clinton said at the time.

Doc Watson's son Merle began recording and touring with him in 1964. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C., that raises money for a community college there and celebrates "traditional plus" music.

"I don't think anyone personifies what we call Americana more than Doc Watson," said Sam Bush, who played with Watson and has performed at every Merlefest since its inception.

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