Doc Watson, the blind Grammy-award winning folk musician whose music was embraced by generations and whose lightning-fast style of flatpicking influenced guitarists around the world, died Tuesday at a North Carolina hospital, according to a hospital spokeswoman and his manager. He was 89.
Watson died at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, where he was hospitalized recently after falling at his home in Deep Gap, in the Blue Ridge Mountains. He underwent abdominal surgery while in the hospital and had been in critical condition for several days. Arthel “Doc” Watson’s mastery of flatpicking helped make the case for the guitar as a lead instrument in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was often considered a backup for the mandolin, fiddle or banjo. His fast playing could intimidate other musicians, even his own grandson, who performed with him. Richard Watson said in a 2000 interview with The Associated Press that his grandfather’s playing had a humbling effect on other musicians. The ever-humble Doc Watson found it hard to believe. “Everybody that’s picked with you says you intimidate them, and that includes some of the best,” Richard Watson told him. Country and bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs said Tuesday evening, “An old ancient warrior has gone home.” “He prepared all of us to carry this on,” Skaggs added.
Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap. He lost his eyesight by the age of 1 when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named for his late son Merle. He came from a musical family -- his father was active in the church choir and played banjo and his mother sang secular and religious songs, according to a statement from Folklore Productions, his management company since 1964. According to the Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson took his nickname at age 19 when someone couldn’t pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted “Call him Doc!” Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.