Doc Watson, innovative guitarist and 'positive icon' for Appalachian region

Doc Watson, who passed on Tuesday, developed a signature style of guitar picking, elevating the instrument to frontline status and influencing guitarists of every genre.

Alan Marler/AP/File
In this April 2001 file photo, Guitarist Doc Watson performs at the annual Merlefest at Wilkes Comunity College in Wilkesboro, N.C.

Guitarist Doc Watson, who passed away Tuesday, was widely considered a true American original who deeply influenced every guitarist – folk, jazz, or rock – in the past 50 years. He was lauded not just for his technical skill but his understanding of Appalachian culture and for his model behavior as a humble man.

Nineteen-year-old Arthel Watson got his nickname at a 1942 concert when the emcee couldn’t pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted, “Call him Doc!”

Generations of admirers have been calling him names ever since: “Guitar Master,” “Godfather of the Guitar,” and many more.

After seven of his 60 albums won Grammy awards, he was awarded an eighth as a lifetime achievement award in 2004.

"There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson," President Clinton said in 1997 when presenting Mr. Watson with the National Medal of the Arts.

He was the envy of other top banjo and guitar pickers from Earl Scruggs to Lester Flatt. Folk guitarists from Stephen Stills to Joe Walsh, rockers such as Eric Clapton, Jimi Hendrix, and Duane Allman, and jazz/fusion great Stanley Jordan have all praised him to the skies.

“He strongly influenced just about anyone who played acoustic guitar in the last 40 years, especially in bluegrass and country,” says Happy Traum, owner of Homespun Tapes, which sells professional guitar training tapes in Woodstock, New York.

“Before him, guitar was mostly backup in bluegrass and country. His skill was so unique that he completely rewrote the book on what you could do with the guitar. His timing, touch, and tone were so impeccable that no one can say they didn’t learn from him,” says Traum.

Watson’s management company, Folklore Productions, described Watson as "a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar."

Doc Watson was born in Deep Gap, N.C., in 1923. He was given a harmonica by his father when he was a young child, and by 5 he was playing the banjo, according to the website of Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C., named for Watson’s son and fellow musician Merle, with whom he recorded several albums.

He learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh (he had lost his sight as an infant), and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.

"My real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music," Watson is quoted as saying on the Merlefest website. "I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar."

In 1953, after joining a Country and Western swing band, which seldom had a fiddle player but was often asked to play at square dances, Watson taught himself to play fiddle tunes on his Les Paul electric guitar, later translating the technique to acoustic guitar and cementing the legacy of his signature sound.

He is also credited with being one of the main artists to bring the guitar, which had frequently been used more as a backup instrument for fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, into the spotlight in the 1950s and 1960s.

Dan Boner, director of bluegrass, old time, and country music studies at East Tennessee State University, says Watson was key to the folk music revival of the ‘60s, when Americans were looking for an alternative to the electric rock music and the British invasion.

“People looking for something more grassroots and down to earth found it with Doc Watson,” says Boner, who adds that Watson was best known for guitar but also played banjo and other old time instruments and “was an incredible singer.”

What was most striking to Boner though, from those that knew him the best, was that Watson never let any of his skill or fame go to his head. “He didn’t like a lot of glorification. He just liked playing music. He was a very polite, caring and humble person.”

Roberta Herrin, chair of the Department of Appalachian Studies at East Tennessee State University, says Watson’s skills transcended music.

“Doc Watson was a positive icon for this region,” says Herrin. “He understood the people, the region, more than just as an entertainer. He understood the people who live here and the depth and complexity of the culture.”

“When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the Merlefest website. “Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional plus.’ ”

Although he famously intimidated other top guitarists he performed with – many can be shown giving deference to him on YouTube – Watson made light of the reputation and displayed almost no ego.

“Doc Watson was a quiet humble man who was a giant in the annals of American Folk Music,” says George Pinchock, associate director of music activities at Villanova. “He was a musical innovator, and many say that he single-handedly popularized the guitar as a lead instrument.”

Mr. Pinchock says he first saw Doc during his college days in the 70’s at a gig at West Chester University when his band was touring.

“It was one of my first experiences with folk music, and I was instantly changed realizing that he represented a part of the world’s great music. Doc’s legacy is here to stay.”

Staff writer Gloria Goodale contributed to this report.

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