Recipient of the National Medal of Arts, National Heritage Fellowship and eight Grammy Awards (including Lifetime achievement, Doc Watson is a legendary performer who blends his traditional Appalachian musical roots with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues to create a unique style and expansive repertoire. He is a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar
Doc was born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, NC on March 23, 1923, into a family already rich in musical tradition. His mother Annie Watson sang traditional, secular, and religious songs, and his father, General Watson played the banjo, which was Doc’s first instrument. 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 fiddle Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947. They became parents of two children, merle and Nancy Ellen.
It wasn’t until 1953 at age thirty that he met Jack Williams, a local piano player, and began to play gigs for money. Doc played with Williams rockabilly/swing band for seven years, a period and a style that he revisited in the recent album Docabilly; but he continued to play traditional music with his family and his banjo playing neighbor, Clarence “Tom” Ashley, spurred by the growing folk festival, Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley and discovered Doc Watson in the process. These sessions resulted in Doc’s first recordings, Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s. In recent years Doc has returned to this old-time pre-bluegrass style in collaborations with David Grisman and David Holt. The latter, entitled Legacy, recently received the Grammy for Best Traditional Folk recordings 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 late sixties brought a waning of the folk revival, 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.
Doc briefly stopped performing after Merle died in a 1985 tractor accident, but continued to accept a limited number of engagements and hosted the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival, better known as MerleFest, in Wilkesboro until his death in 2012.