Doc Watson, the blind Grammy-award winning folk musician whose mountain-rooted sound was embraced by generations and whose lightning-fast style of flatpicking influenced guitarists around the world, died Tuesday at a North Carolina hospital. He was 89.
Watson died in 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.
Country and bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs said Tuesday evening, "An old ancient warrior has gone home."
Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. He lost his eyesight by age 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.
Doc Watson's father gave him a harmonica as a young child, and by 5 he was playing the banjo. He learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh.
He got his musical start in 1953, playing electric lead guitar in a country-and-western swing band. His road to fame began in 1960 when Ralph Rinzler, a musician who also managed Bill Monroe, discovered Watson in North Carolina. That led Watson to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his first recording contract a year later. He went on to record 60 albums and wowed fans ranging from '60s hippies to fans of traditional country and folk music.
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 received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Countless guitarists have tried to emulate Watson's renditions of songs such as "Tennessee Stud," "Shady Grove" and "Deep River Blues."
His son Merle began recording and touring with him in 1964. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C.