A report in The New York Times confirms that Doc Watson, the legendary guitarist whose work influenced country and bluegrass musicians for generations onward, died last night at the age of 89. A spokesperson for Watson’s family said that he passed away following complications from abdominal surgery.
Born Arthel Lane Watson, Doc began playing guitar at a young age and became a technically proficient player on both acoustic and electric guitar by the time he reached adulthood despite being stricken with blindness by an eye infection. In the late ’40s into the ’50s, he played in various country & western bands, most notably Jack Williams & the Country Gentlemen. While playing country music, Doc learned and performed fiddle parts on electric guitar, as Jack Williams’ band did not have a fiddle player.
According to Doc’s biographical recording Legacy, his nickname came about during a radio broadcast that he was playing. The announcer remarked that Arthel was too strange of a name for a musician and that he needed something simpler to catch people’s attention. A fan in the audience screamed out “Call him Doc!” The name stuck.
Doc’s unique style of playing came to a larger audience during the folk music boom of the early 1960’s. Setting aside his electric guitar to focus exclusively on acoustic guitar and banjo, Doc stood out among the folkie crowd with his phenomenal flat-picking and finger-picking guitar style. At a time when many folk musicians used the instrument as a rhythmic device, Doc Watson’s virtuoso acoustic skills were a breath of fresh air.
His fast flat-picking and finger-picking, coupled with his authentic background as a mountain musician, had a profound influence on bluegrass music, specifically the more progressive strands of bluegrass which implemented Doc’s playing technique.
Doc is survived by his wife, Rosa Lee Carlton; his daughter, Nancy Ellen; his brother, David Watson; two grandchildren, and several great-grandchildren.