RALEIGH, N.C. – 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, according to a hospital spokeswoman and his manager. He was 89.
Watson died at 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.
Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. He lost his eyesight by the age of 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, and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.
The wavy-haired Watson 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.
Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.