Jim Morton photo
Rosa Lee Watson with Doc and Merle, 1982.
Doc Watson’s story is every bit of the American dream fulfilled. He was one of North Carolina’s greatest musicians, responsible for influencing multitudes of musicians and music lovers across the globe. When the 89-year-old guitarist succumbed to complications from abdominal surgery this May, there was an immediate outpouring of emotion from all around the world—people whose lives had been touched by the man from Deep Gap, N.C.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson’s humble beginnings go back to the late 1700s when Tom Watson, a determined Scot who settled in the North Carolina backcountry on a 3,000-acre tract, joined thousands of other immigrants settling among the Appalachian Mountains, carving a place for themselves in the new country. Although Doc’s career took him all over the country, he and his family never left North Carolina and he resided in his Deep Gap home until the end.
Influenced by his immediate environment, his family, neighbors and church, Doc grew up secluded in the North Carolina backwoods. Doc said that his first memory of song came from his mother singing church hymns and spirituals—some of which he would later play to audiences and record on albums. Songs that were passed down from generation to generation in the most honest of folk traditions became a part of his life. Doc was exposed to other musical influences and a whole other world of sounds and styles when the family acquired a record player. Doc completely lost his eyesight due to an eye infection before he turned a year old. However, his lack of sight honed his ears. His first instrument was the harmonica, but it was the banjo that his father hand-made for him that got him into stringed instruments. The banjo was the gateway instrument to the one that would become Doc’s all-time passion—the flat-top guitar.
Doc learned how to play the guitar while at the Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C. After using a thumb-and-strum method in the Carter family style, Doc decided to play with a flat-pick, mimicking some of the famous Jimmie Rodger’s leads he had heard—the transition was enlightening and crucial to the style that Doc would pioneer.
Doc’s greatest source of pride would not come in the form of awards or albums; it was the family that he dearly loved. In his 20s, he fell in love with Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of old-time fiddler Gaither Carlton, and they married in 1947. Following the birth of their son Eddy Merle in 1949, the proud parents were blessed with a daughter, Nancy Ellen in 1951. Merle would later go on to be Doc’s playing partner, and the duo would record multiple albums and play hundreds of shows together. Merle would be the driver and the businessman for his dad when they were on the road traveling. Always gracious, Doc would proudly tell everyone that his son was the most talented picker in the family. Their first show together was the Berkeley Folk Festival in 1964, which was during the popular folk-revival era. During the 1970s and 80s, Doc would tour with various players, but Merle would always be there with him until the ultimate misfortune that could ever be felt by any parent. October 1985, Merle was thrown from his tractor as he drove on a steep incline on his farm in Lenoir, N.C. The tractor flipped over on top of Merle, killing him instantly.
Merle’s death came as a blow to Doc. He found it extremely hard to go back out on the road without his most trusted friend and playing partner. Eventually, Doc continued touring and was joined by acoustic guitarist Jack Lawrence, who would go on to play with Doc for many years. David Holt, Southern Appalachian Mountains storyteller and musician, became his accompaniment in his final years.
Although his lighting speed licks slowed with age and his beautiful baritone voice wavered and fumbled with words at times, his will to play for audiences never waned. He recorded more than fifty albums in his career and won countless awards including eight Grammys (a Lifetime Achievement as well), a National Medal of Arts awarded by President Bill Clinton, and President Jimmy Carter’s declaration of being a “national treasure.” However, Doc Watson remained exactly what the inscription says on the life-size statue placed in downtown Boone, N.C., where he used to play for tips to support his family: “Just One of the People.”
David on Doc: Remembering a legend
SML: When and where did you first see Doc Watson play?
David Holt: I first heard his recordings in high school. I saw him play in 1972 at a bluegrass festival in North Carolina. After I saw him play I went backstage and it was then I asked him how blind people dream. He said, “Feelings, pure feelings.”
How did your partnership begin with Doc?
I used to host the “Fire On the Mountain” TV series for TNN. Doc and Merle were guests on the show and really enjoyed playing together. In 1985 Doc and Merle played on my Reel and Rock CD. In 1998 we taped a special for PBS in North Carolina and presenters started asking for us to perform together. We won the Grammy for our LEGACY CD in 2002 and performed together for fourteen years.
What was it like playing with Doc live?
Fun and challenging. Doc never played any tune the same way twice … so I really had to stay on my toes. He was a great rhythm guitarist as well as one of the best lead guitarists. I loved his harmonica playing and singing. I have really tried to learn most of his guitar fingerpicking tunes.
Give us five essential Doc albums we should be listening to.
They are all great. A few favorites are “Doc Watson,” “Doc Watson and Son,” “Memories,” “Legacy” and “Ballads from Deep Gap.”
How were you influenced by Doc Watson?
Doc showed us all the way to take an old-time mountain song and make it more palatable to a modern audience … not breaking the tradition, just bending it a little. He was a great singer who put feeling into every song. He listened to every note he played and made each one count. I have tried to absorb that from him. Of course, I have learned many, many of his songs and tunes. He was a truly great man.