American folk musician whose virtuoso style of playing brought the guitar out of the shadows
DOC Watson, who died last Tuesday aged 89, was an American folk guitarist whose virtuoso style of playing influenced musicians as diverse as Jerry Garcia of The Grateful Dead, Clarence White of The Byrds and the country singer and instrumentalist Ricky Skaggs.
Until the middle of the last century, in folk bands the guitar was mainly a backing instrument for the mandolin, fiddle or banjo. Watson's high-speed "flatpicking" style (using a plectrum to strike the strings) helped to establish the guitar as a lead instrument both in folk and pop.
Watson was best known for traditional American country music -- songs such as Shady Grove and Deep River Blues, which he adapted for the guitar from the folk tunes with which he had grown up in the mountains of North Carolina.
But he ranged widely, playing tunes by Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton, and once participating in a jam session with Booker T and the MGs.
The sixth of nine children, Arthel Lane Watson was born on March 3, 1923, at Stoney Fork, North Carolina, into a poor farming family and grew up in the town of Deep Gap. When he was two, he lost his sight due to an infection.
Encouraged by his parents, he became proficient on the harmonica. Later he took up the banjo after his father made him an instrument with a "head" made from the skin of the family's recently deceased pet cat. He got his first guitar at 13 and was soon learning to imitate the folk music he heard on Grand Ole Opry radio broadcasts and on 78rpm records.
After leaving school Watson and an older brother began busking, and aged 17 Watson began playing with a string band on local radio, where an announcer gave him the nickname "Doc".
Inspired by Grady Martin, a Nashville session musician known for his virtuoso playing on the electric guitar, Watson began to adapt fast fiddle tunes on a Les Paul instrument, and in the Fifties he joined a dance band, playing a mix of honky-tonk, country, pop, swing and square dance music. The band's fiddle player did not always show up for gigs, and Watson often found himself playing the fiddle parts on his guitar -- a technique he would later apply to his adaptations of traditional tunes.
In 1960 he was discovered by the musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who had travelled to North Carolina to record the singer and banjo player Clarence "Tom" Ashley. Watson was one of the musicians recruited by Ashley for the session. Rinzler persuaded Watson to return to the acoustic guitar and traditional country music, and arranged bookings for him on the folk festival circuit. Watson's virtuoso renditions of Railroad Bill, Deep River Blues and other favourites were soon causing a sensation.
In 1964 he was joined by his teenage son Merle on second guitar, recording and performing "traditional plus" which, as Watson explained, meant "the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play". The pair produced albums including Doc Watson and Son (1965) and Southbound (1966), the latter featuring Jimmie Driftwood's modern cowboy ballad Tennessee Stud and the Chet Atkins instrumental Windy and Warm. In 1972 they featured on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's Will the Circle Be Unbroken, which sold more than a million copies.
In 1985, however, Merle was killed in a tractor accident and Watson gave up touring. In 1988 he founded the MerleFest annual musical festival at Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in his son's memory. It has grown into one of America's major folk festivals.
Watson recorded some 60 albums, of which seven won Grammy awards. He also won a Grammy lifetime achievement award and received the National Medal of the Arts from Bill Clinton in 1997.
Watson is survived by his wife, Rosa, and by a daughter.