Doc Watson Biography

Arthel L. Watson, 3 March 1923, Stony Fork, near Deep Gap, Watauga County, North Carolina, USA. One of nine children in a farming family, Watson grew up in a musical environment; his mother, Annie, had a vast knowledge of folk songs and his father, General Dixon, played banjo and led his family in nightly hymn singing. He contracted a serious eye defect as a baby and was blind by the age of two. Owing to family poverty and his blindness, he received no formal schooling until he was 10, when he attended the State School for the Blind at Raleigh. Disliking the treatment he received at the school, he left after only a year and gained much of his later education from talking books and Braille. During his life, Watson has never surrendered to his disability and he attributed his determination to the training he received from his father, who encouraged him to work on the farm and attempt various tasks that at first appeared impossible for a blind person. He played harmonica as a child until, at the age of 11, his father gave him a home-made banjo, reputedly with the head covered by the skin of the recently departed family cat. A year later he obtained his first guitar and quickly mastered the instrument by accompanying recordings by artists such as the Carter Family, Riley Puckett and the Carolina Tar Heels that were played on the family’s Victrolla and on radio broadcasts from the Grand Ole Opry.

Soon afterwards, he and his guitar-playing elder brother Linney began playing on street corners. He soon became very proficient in a finger picking style of guitar playing, and in 1940, he played at a major fiddlers’ convention at Boone. A year later he became a member of a band playing on a radio station in Lenoir, North Carolina, and there acquired the nickname of ‘Doc’ when an announcer proclaimed that Arthel was far too awkward for radio use (Watson has many times denied an often repeated story that the nickname referred to the Dr. Watson of the Sherlock Holmes stories). In 1947, Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton, the daughter of a noted old-time fiddler, Gaither Carlton, and from his father-in-law he began to amass a considerable repertoire of old-time mountain ballads and tunes. He continued to play with a band but also worked as a piano tuner to assist the family finances. In 1953, at the age of 30, he eventually became a professional musician, when, prompted by his friend, pianist Jack Williams, he changed to an electrified instrument and played lead guitar in a C&W swing band. He stayed with the band for almost eight years, including touring and playing for square dances where, since the band had no fiddler, he played electric guitar lead for the fiddle tunes. During this time he never lost contact with his folk and old-time music roots, and, when commitments permitted, he often played acoustic music with his family and his friend Clarence Tom Ashley, an original member of the Carolina Tar Heels. In the early 60s, the emerging interest in folk music led to Ralph Rinzler recording Ashley; Watson subsequently played banjo and guitar on the sessions. In 1961, Watson, accompanied by Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price, played a concert for Friends of Old Time Music in New York.

Watson’s performance led to him making his solo debut at Gerde’s Folk City, Greenwich Village, the following year, when he also played in Los Angeles with Ashley. In 1963, he made a major impression at the Newport Folk Festival and after his appearance with Bill Monroe at a New York concert, Watson, at the age of 40, found himself a star and in great demand for public appearances. In 1964, his son Merle (b. Eddy Merle Watson, 8 February 1949, Deep Gap, North Carolina, USA, d. 23 October 1985) became his rhythm guitarist, chauffeur and road manager (Watson named him after two of his heroes, Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis). In 1964, with Gaither Carlton and other Watson family members, they played the Newport Festival. Watson toured the UK with Rinzler in 1966 (he and Merle also played in London in 1977). In 1968, Doc and Merle toured African countries as part of the State Department’s cultural exchange programme. In 1972, Doc made an outstanding contribution to the triple album projectWill The Circle Be Unbroken, organized by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Watson received Grammy Awards in 1973 and 1974 forThen And Now andTwo Days In November.

When the interest in folk music declined, Doc, unlike many other artists, found that his popularity was unaffected, and from the mid-70s, he and Merle, usually accompanied by bass guitarist Michael T. Coleman, continued their hectic touring schedules, flying to many venues in their private aircraft (they were in such great demand that they sometimes played as many as 300 concerts a year). Although content to play as accompanist to his father, Merle was in his own right an excellent flatpicker and slide guitarist and banjo player, and was instrumental in helping his father to become popular with both folk and country audiences. In the early 80s, Merle split his time equally between touring with his father and working as a record producer and session musician. In 1984 he produced his father’sDown South on Sugar Hill Records. Despite serious hip joint damage (the result of childhood polio), Merle had always managed to keep pace with his father’s driving output; however, in 1985 he was killed in an accident, when a tractor overturned on him on the family farm.

For a time, Doc cut down on his appearances, but, gradually coming to terms with his loss, he and Coleman resumed touring, with Jack Lawrence taking Merle’s place. Doc Watson has become a living legend and a man who, like Ronnie Milsap, has never let his blindness deter him. Fans have even offered him cornea transplants, and when asked what he would have done had he not been blind, he commented that he would probably have been an electrician, although it should be noted that he did once successfully rewire his own house.

In 1986, Doc And Merle, a film biography, was released and Doc won another Grammy for Best Traditional Folk Recording forRiding The Midnight Train. In 1990, he repeated his success withOn Praying Ground. Over the years, he has recorded numerous solo albums, albums with Merle, and with other artists, including Chet Atkins and Flatt And Scruggs, for various labels. In 1996, a 4-CD compilation set of Watson’s Vanguard Records releases, was issued, the fourth disc being devoted to previously unissued live festival recordings with Merle.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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