Doc Watson, Legendary Acoustic Guitarist and Singer, Dies at Age 89

Grammy-Winning Musician Was a Major Player on Will the Circle Be Unbroken Album

Doc Watson, the Grammy-winning flatpicking guitarist, died Tuesday (May 29) in Winston-Salem, N.C., following a brief illness. He was 89.

Watson was slightly injured on May 21 when he fell at his home in Deep Gap, N.C. Hospitalized at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., he was also diagnosed with an abdominal infection and underwent colon surgery on Thursday (May 25).

Arthel Lane Watson was born in Deep Gap, N.C., on March 2, 1923. Blinded by a vascular disease while still an infant, he nonetheless absorbed the songs and musical styles he heard from his family. His earliest instrument was the harmonica, but when he was 10, he learned to play the banjo his father had made for him. By the time he reached his teens, however, he had settled on the guitar as his preferred musical vehicle.

Watson told one interviewer the first song he learned to play on the guitar was the Carter Family’s wistful “When the Roses Bloom Again in Dixieland.” Throughout his long career, he maintained a fondness for such Appalachian ballads, although his musical repertoire grew to extend well beyond that genre, eventually embracing blues, rockabilly (for which he played electric guitar) and country.

Watson’s early professional stints included working as a street musician and playing in various country and folk bands. His big break came in 1960, at the outset of the folk-music revival, when he was playing rhythm guitar in a group led by string-band pioneer Clarence Ashley.

Ashley’s band was booked at a festival in Union Grove, N.C., when Watson caught the attention of folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who was also doubling as a member of the Greenbriar Boys.

Impressed by what he saw and heard, Rinzler booked Ashley’s band at gigs in New York City and Los Angeles. When Ashley was sidelined by laryngitis, Watson stepped in as lead vocalist, demonstrating he had both the skills and charisma to work as a solo act.

Before striking out on his own, however, Watson recorded two albums with Ashley for the Folkways label.

In 1963, Watson played the fabled Newport Folk Festival, and his son Merle joined his act the following year. The two would perform and record regularly together until Merle’s death in a tractor accident in 1985.

Besides an increasingly heavy schedule of personal appearances, Watson also released a series of albums during the 1960s that displayed his fluid and precise flatpicking style and crisp, unadorned vocals. Among these were The Doc Watson Family (1963), Doc Watson & Son (1965) and Southbound (1966).

In 1967, Watson teamed up with the then wildly-popular Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs for the Columbia Records album Strictly Instrumental. He went on to be a vital part of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s historic Will the Circle Be Unbroken project. Released in 1972, it featured such other country, folk and bluegrass luminaries as Roy Acuff, Mother Maybelle Carter, Jimmy Martin, Earl Scruggs and Merle Travis. Watson also appeared on 2002’s sequel, Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 3.

Two of Doc and Merle Watson’s recordings made the Billboard country charts during the 1970s: “Bottle of Wine” (which went to No. 71 in 1973) and “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” (No. 88, 1978).

Watson won his first Grammy in 1973 for best ethnic or traditional recording for the album Then and Now. Six more Grammys followed, the last one awarded in 2006. It was for best country instrumental performance, a recognition Watson shared with fellow guitarist Bryan Sutton for their rendition of “Whiskey Before Breakfast.”

In 2004, the Recording Academy honored Watson with a Lifetime Achievement Grammy. He was elected to the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Fame in 2000.

Counting collaborations and compilations, Watson released more than 60 albums and influenced other noted guitarists, including Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Dan Crary and Randy Scruggs.

In 1988, three years after Merle Watson’s death, Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., launched MerleFest to raise funds for a campus garden.

Envisioned as a one-time event, it proved so popular that it has been staged every year since and now draws upwards of 80,000 ticket-buyers. It always featured Doc Watson as its host and principal performer.

Edward Morris is a veteran of country music journalism. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee, and is a frequent contributor to