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Doc Watson An authentic Appalachian legend

by Lacy Hilliard
Freelance Writer, Photographer

Native Appalachians know and revere the name ‘Doc Watson.’ The seven-time Grammy award winning flat-picker left his mark not only in the music world but also as a humanitarian. An Appalachian native, Watson possessed a deep understanding of the beauty of Appalachian culture and he translated it through his skills as a songwriter and as a bluegrass pioneer.
Arthel ‘Doc’ Watson was born in Stoney Fork, North Carolina on March 3, 1923 but he was raised and spent his entire life in Deep Gap, NC. Watson was born with a defect that affected the blood flow to his eyes. Because of this disease, an eye infection he contracted shortly after birth caused him to permanently lose his vision. Though he was afflicted with this disability, Watson never allowed such things to prevent him from achieving excellence. He attended The Governor Morehead School in Raleigh, NC where he strived to achieve normalcy through his disability. Watson’s parents, Annie Greene and General Dixon Watson taught their son to work hard at whatever he chose in life no matter the disadvantage his situation had to offer. The combination of the Watsons’ work ethic in tandem with their love of music inspired ‘Doc’ to become a musician.
At age six, Watson learned to play the harmonica. However, it wasn’t unusual to find the young Watson turning anything he could find into a makeshift musical instrument. At age eleven, Watson began to learn banjo on an instrument his father handcrafted for him. General Watson recognized his son’s exceptional talent even in the early stages when his performance included just his harmonica and a steel wire strung across the door of the woodshed to provide bass accompaniment. When Doc was 13 years old, he earned enough money to buy his first guitar by harvesting small chestnut trees that surrounded his family home and selling the wood to the tannery. Unknown to young Doc and his family, the $10 Stella guitar, purchased from Sears and Roebuck, would be the beginning of a lifelong legacy.
Fans of Doc Watson will tell you that it was his impressive flat-picking that began his lifelong career, the speed, tone, and precision that Watson achieved as a guitarist is world renowned. However, even those that aren’t familiar with Doc’s music cannot ignore his lifetime of achievements. Watson was awarded many times throughout his career but perhaps none more impressive than his status as a seven-time Grammy award winner as well as a Lifetime Achievement Award winner. His Grammy stint spanned decades from 1973 to 2006, proving the Doc’s mellow baritone vocals combined with his technically flawless guitar work would timelessly speak to the generations. In his lifetime, Watson composed and collaborated on over 63 albums. During his career, Doc brushed elbows with the likes of Randy and Earl Scruggs, David Grisman, and Ricky Skaggs to name a few and he is well known and highly respected on the American bluegrass scene. It may seem that a man with so many boast-worthy accomplishments might have reason to become arrogant, but in the life of Doc Watson, nothing could be further from the truth.
Perhaps as much as his musical talent, Doc Watson is treasured as an American bluegrass and country icon for his humility, wit, and kindness. Not only did Watson strive to leave his mark on his community by donating to many local charities, as well as maintaining his residence in his hometown, he also was a wonderfully loving father to his two children, Nancy Ellen and Eddy Merle Watson. One of the greatest tragedies in the life of Doc Watson was the loss of his son, Merle, at age 36. Merle Watson died on October 23, 1985 when his tractor rolled down on embankment, pinning him underneath. To honor his life and legacy, Doc began ‘MerleFest’ almost 25 years ago. The festival takes place annually in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The event attracts thousands and has proven to be an appropriate memorial to a talented young artist that left this world too soon. Watson also founded ‘Music Fest ‘N’ Sugar Grove’ which takes place annually in the town for which it is named. This year’s event will occur on July 13, and will feature Grammy Award winners, The Carolina Chocolate Drops and dozens of other well-accomplished bands as well as several Doc Watson tributes.
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