The manager of Grammy-winning folk musician Doc Watson says the artist has died. He was 89.
Mitchell Greenhill said in a news release that Watson died Tuesday at Wake Forest
Baptist Hospital Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. A hospital spokeswoman also confirmed
Watson was a master flatpicker, playing his acoustic guitar at lightning speeds
that could intimidate other musicians. The blind musician also sang and played other
instruments, including the harmonica.
A North Carolinian throughout his life, Mr. Watson was a profound influence on Nashville
music and musicians. Considered among the four most influential folk/country guitarists
of the past half century (along with Merle Travis, Chet Atkins and Tony Rice),
his rapid flatpicking style is emulated by many of Music City’s finest players, including country
star Vince Gill and bluegrass flashes Andy Leftwich and Bryan Sutton.
“He was the first guitar player I ever saw live who was doing what I was trying to do,” Sutton
told Nashville journalist Craig Havighurst, talking about being 10-years-old and witnessing
Mr. Watson’s show in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. “I’d never heard anybody flatpick like that.”
Himself inspired by Nashville guitarists including Travis, Grady Martin and Hank Garland,
Mr. Watson often teamed with Father of Bluegrass Bill Monroe, as may be heard
on Smithsonian Folkways’ Bill Monroe and Doc Watson: Live Duet Recordings 1963-1980 album.
Mr. Watson traveled to East Nashville’s Woodland Studios in 1971 to take part in
the now-legendary Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, a multi-generational gathering
spearheaded by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. He figured prominently on the
finished album (released in 1972), both in the musical selections and in a recording
that documents his first ever meeting with the great Merle Travis.
“I named my son for you and Eddy Arnold,” Watson told Travis. “I figure a little of that good
guitar picking might rub off on him.
“Look who’s talking,” Travis replied.
On the Dirt Band’s Will The Circle Be Unbroken Volume III, released in 2002, Mr. Watson performed
“I Am A Pilgrim” as a tribute to the late Travis, who recorded that song on
the initial Circle album.
Will The Circle Be Unbroken was a springboard to national fame for Mr. Watson, as the album’s
commercial and critical success helped the guitar wizard to find new audiences. The album was
praised for connecting musicians of varying ages, styles, upbringings and political outlooks,
though for the young members of the Dirt Band, the thrill wasn’t in the reviews,
it was in the playing.
“Whether or not we realized that this was crossing this huge generational gap, cultural gap,
I was just happy to be there playing in the room with Doc Watson,” Dirt Band guitarist and
vocalist Hanna told music journalist Jason Hamad last year.
Each year, many Nashville musicians travel to Wilkesboro, NC for the annual Merlefest,
a music festival that began in 1988 as a way to honor Mr. Watson’s late son, Eddy Merle Watson,
who died in a 1985 tractor accident. The festival draws more than 80,000 fans and features
90 artists, few of whom draw louder cheers than does legendary Nashville songwriter
Guy Clark, particularly when Clark sings of his own worldly good fortune
in “Dublin Blues:” “I have seen the David/ Seen the Mona Lisa, too/ And I have heard Doc
Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’”
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