Willard Watson and his wife Ora were among the extraordinary traditional artists in the Watson family of Watauga County, who were recognized with a 1994 North Carolina Heritage Award. Willard, a first cousin to famed guitarist Doc Watson, was widely known as a flatfoot dancer, storyteller, banjo player, and especially a woodcarver. “If anyone would have told me when I first started making this here crafting that it’d be the headache it is sometimes, I would have throwed every knife I have away and quit,” he said in a 1970s interview. “But I’m into it now. I’ve got so many places that wants just exactly what I make, and I’m the only man now that makes exactly what I make.”
By his own estimation, he was a man that “can’t hardly be whipped by a piece of wood.” His contraptions celebrated his rich imagination and close-to-the-earth values, as well as his delightful sense of play. “I stayed in the woods twenty years or better,” Willard said. “If I could take it I’d go back to the woods yet. It was borned in me. I always loved to work in the woods, loved good timber.”
Watson prided himself in doing good work. “If I go to make anything it’s got to suit me and then it’ll suit the public,” he said. “Now that’s just what kind of fellow Willard is.” His banjo playing is documented on a variety of recordings, including the Clawhammer Banjo albums on County Records. His cheerful sense of humor, stories, and wood carvings left a deep impression on Watauga County and the surrounding region.
Ora was an expert quilter, and the two often traveled around the region to fairs and festivals. Ora developed a personal style notable for its mastery of traditional patterns and use of striking color combinations. Her quilts attracted attention from museums and collectors throughout North Carolina and beyond. The two were regular participants at the North Carolina State Fair in Raleigh, and they appeared at the National Folk Festival and Newport Folk Festival. Their work is included in the collection of the Smithsonian Institution.