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RIP Doc Watson, one of the great Southern musicians

Doc Watson, born Arthel Watson in Deep Gap, North Carolina in 1923, died today.

He was an extraordinary guitar player in Merle Travis’s lineage (he named his son Merle), tied into deep traditions in his part of the mountains of North Carolina. He was blind before his first birthday.

He was playing locally in a wide variety of styles– country, honky-tonk, even rockabilly– when he was part of a group put together to back Tom Ashley in 1960 by folklorist Ralph Rinzler. Rinzler help bring Watson to wider attention, first with performances in New York, then at the Newport Folk festivals in 1963 and 1964. His appearances there and at the Ash Grove club in Los Angeles were legendary.

He was a part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Circle album, reaching to a broader audience, and toured with his son Merle from the 60s until Merle’s death in the early 80s. Thereafter, saying Merle had come to him in a dream and said “Carry on,” he continued to tour until not that long ago. I saw him in Memphis and Atlanta (and could never convince the folks at the Ford Center he’d be worth bringing to Oxford).

Rinzler described his playing (quoted in the New York Times obituary):

“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance,” said Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who discovered Mr. Watson in 1960. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”

The way Doc Watson comes across in his playing, singing, and the material he picked (deeply traditional, although he’d play anything that caught his fancy– I saw him play “Knights in White Satin,” apparently a regular part of his set for a while) spoke of a gentle, wonderful soul.  He’ll be deeply missed by fans like me, and by friends of mine who knew him as their good friend.

I’m really feeling at a loss describing his music, and can only say check it out.

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