Born in Watauga County in 1923 into a musically rich family, Arthel “Doc” Watson spent a lifetime as a performer blending his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel, and blues creating a unique style and an expansive repertoire. Doc virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar, influencing countless musicians. He was also a wonderful singer, and he played a two-finger banjo style that is traditional in the region. He recorded more than fifty albums over the years and received much recognition for his work, earning the National Medal of Arts, a National Heritage Fellowship, the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, seven Grammy Awards, and a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.
His mother, Annie Watson, sang traditional secular and religious songs, and his father, General Watson, played the banjo, which was Doc’s first instrument, as well. At age thirteen he taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar, and his delighted father bought him a $12 Stella. He later picked up some chords from a fellow student at Raleigh School for the Blind, and began to incorporate material that he heard on records and the radio with the music of his heritage. Back home he played mostly with neighbors and family, among them fiddler Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947.
In 1953 at age thirty, he met local piano player Jack Williams, and he spent seven years playing gigs with Williams’ rockabilly/swing band. He also continued to play traditional music with his family and with his banjo playing neighbor, Clarence “Tom” Ashley. In 1960, spurred by the growing folk revival, Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley and heard Doc Watson in the process. These sessions resulted in Doc’s first recordings, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s. In his later years, Doc returned to this old-time pre-bluegrass style in collaborations with David Grisman and David Holt. His recording with David Holt, entitled Legacy, received the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording of 2002. In 1961 the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Doc, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a now-legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Doc gave his first solo performance at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village. From then on, he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.
As the folk revival waned in the late 1960s, Doc’s son Merle provided the musical and emotional companionship that he needed to continue touring. With Merle playing guitar and banjo and serving as partner and driver, the father-son team expanded their audience nationwide. After working for a while with the band Frosty Morn, they continued to tour with bassist T. Michael Coleman, and brought their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of remarkable recordings, including collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped make Watson the gold standard among traditional pickers.
After Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985, Doc helped start and hosted the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival (“MerleFest”) in Wilkesboro, NC. He continued to perform regularly, often in collaboration with guitarist Jack Lawrence, David Holt, or his grandson Richard Watson.
Doc Watson passed away on May 29, 2012 at the age of 89.