A towering figure in American music, who has been called one of the most important guitar players of the 20th century, has died. The Los Angeles Times reports that Doc Watson died Tuesday at 89.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, who grew up in rural Deep Gap, N.C., and went blind due to an eye infection before his first birthday, helped shape the role of the acoustic guitar in bluegrass, country and folk music along with fellow master pickers Chet Atkins and Merle Travis. Watson’s blazing fast and remarkably clean lead runs, developed in part by emulating traditional fiddle tunes, helped elevate the guitar from its traditional rhythm role into a lead instrument.
Watson was the founder and father figure of the annual MerleFest bluegrass festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., one of the most important bluegrass events in the country, founded in honor of Watson’s son Merle shortly after he died in a tractor accident in 1985. Doc and Merle Watson toured together as a duo for years, and Merle’s place was later taken by Doc Watson’s grandson, Richard Watson.
Randall Roberts, in the L.A. Times, writes: “Watson, like Pete Seeger and Burl Ives, sang and played in glorious tune, was a stickler for tone, and conveyed his acoustic lines with a driving fluidity. Listening to his early sides recorded for Vanguard, his work on the seminal celebration of old-time music, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ and the music created during his decades on Flying Fish Records, you can hear the work of a master whose style, though refined, was never academic. He never misses a stroke or a strike, singing melodic runs with his voice that move in glorious counterpoint to the notes springing from his guitar.”
Here’s an early clip of Watson performing “Deep River Blues”: