A masterful flatpicker, warm vocalist, and a genius at interpreting old-time folk and bluegrass (as well as contemporary) material, Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson was a solid link in the musical chain between the worlds of traditional mountain music and contemporary audiences. Watson died this past Tuesday at age 89, and musicians and music fans across genres are feeling the loss.
Watson was hospitalized a few days earlier after a fall, which left him in critical condition. He passed away on Tuesday (May 29).
On Wednesday, another masterful guitarist, Ry Cooder, wrote a heartfelt personal essay about Watson and his influence in the New York Times. He remembers first hearing Watson live at the UCLA Folk Festival in 1963.
“I remember thinking that these men know something about music I’ll never know, even if I practice and study all my life. You have to be born into it. That way, every note and word and gesture has meaning, and your notes and sung words line up with those of your friends and make a whole statement about life that is tiny but eternal.”
Watson was not a bluegrass artist per se, but his interpretation of traditional country and old-time folk material came from a similar rural, hand-me-down heritage. He played music all his life–his family played, and music was simply everywhere in and around his home town of Deep Gap, North Carolina.
As a professional musician, though, his career took off during the 1960s, when he was ‘discovered’ by the then-burgeoning folk revival scene. Along with his warm baritone voice, what was immediately striking about Watson’s music was his flatpicking skills on the acoustic guitar. His speed and dexterity on the instrument was was incredible.
Same went for his vast song knowledge. He “arranged and adapted” many songs by such early country artists as Cliff Carlisle, Dock Boggs, and the Delmore Brothers, and also worked up fiddle tunes like “Black Mountain Rag” (one of his signatures) for the guitar.
He also easily picked up and adapted contemporary material from the likes of Townes Van Zandt (“If I Needed You”) and Bob Dylan. One of his best-known songs, though, is “Tennessee Stud.” It was a Jimmy Driftwood song that became another of Doc’s signatures…and his only recording that approached ‘hit’ status, thanks to its inclusion on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band‘s classic 1971 album, Will The Circle Be Unbroken?
Along with his recordings and mesmerizing live performances, Doc’s legacy also included performing for presidents, winning multiple GRAMMYs, and organizing MerleFest, an annual bluegrass and traditional music festival in North Carolina. It’s named after Doc’s late son Merle Watson, his frequent recording and touring partner, who died in a tractor accident in 1985.
– Kurt Wolff, CBS Local