With Doc Watson goes a piece of Americana.
The folk-music legend, blind since infancy and known for his mastery of the acoustic guitar, died today at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. He was 89.
Watson was hospitalized last week and underwent abdominal surgery after a fall at his home in Deep Gap, where he was born Arthel Lane Watson and given the nickname "Doc" during an appearance on a local radio show when he was in his teens.
The eventual flat-picking legend bought himself his first guitar when he was a kid with $10 his father gave him for farm work.
"He put me to work, and that made me feel useful," Watson, the sixth of nine children, told Fret magazine in 1979. "A lot of blind people weren't ever put to work." He entered the Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh when he was 10, and that's where the youngster—who already had a background in church music and was adept at harmonica and banjo—first listened to classical music, big-band jazz and guitar players like Django Reinhardt.
"I couldn't figure out what the devil he was doing, he went so fast on most of it, but I loved it," Watson said of Reinhardt's playing, according to Steve Kaufman's The Legacy of Doc Watson.
Watson was a skilled fingerpicker, but it was his flatpicking guitar style that influenced so many others. He first made a name for himself on the folk circuit, particularly with his performances at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and '64, but ultimately was a force in country, bluegrass and gospel, as well.
"There may not be a serious, committed Baby Boomer alive who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson," President Bill Clinton said when presenting the artist with a National Medal of the Arts in 1997.
"He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and finger-picking performance," wrote folk musicologist Ralph Rinzler. "His flat-picking style has no precedent in early country music history,"
On the strength of his 1972 live recording of "Tennessee Stud," Watson started touring in the mid-1970s with his son Merle and T. Michael Coleman on bass. The trio recorded 15 albums before 1985, when Merle died in a tractor accident. The annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival (or MerleFest) in Wilkesboro, N.C., celebrates his memory.
Watson's many accolades also included eight Grammy Awards (including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004) and the National Endowment for the Arts' National Heritage Fellowship in 1988.
His first Gallagher guitar is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. A life-size statue of Watson, dedicated last year, stands in Boone, N.C. At his request, the inscription read, simply, "Just One of the People."
In 1970, Watson told Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, "When I play a song, be it on the guitar or banjo, I live that song, whether it is a happy song or a sad song. Music, as a whole, expresses many things to me—everything from beautiful scenery to the tragedies and joys of life...whether I'm playing for myself or for an enthusiastic audience, I can get the same emotions I had when I found that Dad had seen to it that Santa Claus brought exactly what I wanted for Christmas.
"A true entertainer, I think, doesn't ever lose that feeling."