How Arthel Lane Watson picked up the nickname “Doc” proves a bit unusual. He was playing music on a radio broadcast from a furniture store in Lenoir, North Carolina, and the leader of the band asked his name. When he responded with “Arthel Watson,” the man said that was too hard to pronounce over the air. A member of the audience spoke up and said, “Call him Doc,” and since that time he has been known as “Doc Watson”.
Categorizing Doc’s music defies any taxonomy. The sounds he produces crosses all barriers, just producing enjoyment, regardless of the name we impose on it. He put the name to the guitar style now prevalent in Bluegrass called “flat picking.” The name derives from the flat pick he uses to produce melodic lead guitar that previously belong only to the finger-pickers using thumb and finger picks. Blending influences from records and radio with his family’s rich musical, legacy, he reached back into times past, playing and singing songs that had been recorded by people such as blind guitarist Riley Puckett, who played with Gid Tanner’s Skillet Lickers in the 1920s and 1930s. He was particularly fond of the Delmore Brothers, The Monroe Brothers, and the Carter Family, bands that he heard while growing up in his native state of North Carolina. Another musician Doc often credits for his influence is the late Merle Travis. Doc not only learned to play the guitar in his style but he also named his son Eddy Merle , with the first name being in honor of Eddy Arnold, the legendary country singer.
Born on March 2, 1923 near Deep Gap, North Carolina, he still lives there, in an area that was settled by his great grandfather, who had emigrated from Scotland. He was born with a defect in the blood vessels that carry blood to the eyes. When he developed an eye infection at a very early age, he completely lost his sight. At one time he had high hopes that an eye transplant could be done, but medical examinations ruled out that possibility.
His father demonstrated that his blindness did not mean Doc could not live a useful life. He learned to use a crosscut saw with his father. Because of this important lesson he has gone on to a wonderful career in music and does many handyman projects, such as installing a TV antenna on the top of his Daughter’s house and completely wiring his own home for electricity.
Like so many others who have become prominent in music. Doc’s earliest recollections of music center around the hymns he heard in church. When he was eleven years old, his father built him a fretless banjo, and later, when Doc was messing around with a borrowed guitar, his father told him that if he could play a tune by that evening, he would buy him his own guitar. His father didn’t know that Doc had learned some chords on the guitar at the North Carolina School for the Blind in Raleigh. When evening came Doc had learned to play a Carter family song; “Where the Roses Bloom in Dixieland,” and his father remained true to his promise, buying Doc a Stella for $12.00.
The young Doc Watson first professional experience, that is playing for pay, came busking on street comers or wherever he could make money. Beginning in 1952 he played electric lead guitar for ten years in a band known as Jack Williams and The Country Gentlemen. He grew very despondent and ready to quit the music business since living costs consumed most of the $150.00 per week he earned. He also had to depend on other people to guide him to and from the night club where they played. A man named Jerry Rix, who was employed at the night club, came to Doc’s rescue, offering Doc a place in his home, which Doc accepted as long as he was allowed to split the cost of the groceries. Doc has always remembered this kindness and has paid it back many times by doing nice things for other people.
Ralph Rinzler, later of the Smithsonian Institution and at one time manager for Bill Monroe, also brought Doc Watson to the attention of many people. Meeting Doc while searching for 1920s musician Clarence Ashley, he arranged a concert for Doc in New York and was also instrumental in Doc’s appearing at the Ash Grove in Los Angeles, California. In September of 1993 Smithsonian/Folkways Recordings issued a compact disc of live recordings made when Doc and Bill Monroe appeared together at The Ash Grove on May 19, 1963 and at other shows. Doc’s rhythm guitar on Bill’s tune, “Get Up John,” is some of the finest ever recorded. When Doc played the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, he was quickly adopted by the folk fans as one of their very own heroes.
Merle Watson, who had been tutored by his mother Rosa Lee, joined his father finger picking and playing slide guitar in 1964, and quickly demonstrated that he was just as adept musically as his father. Their genuine partnership and friendship continued until Merle’s untimely death in a tractor accident on October 23, 1985. Fans of folk, country, Bluegrass, and even rock music accepted the music that Doc and Merle played before countless numbers of people. Merle’s guitar style was heavily influenced by the finger picking of Mississippi John Hurt, one of America’s foremost guitarists. Merle and Doc made many recordings together with one of the most popular being (Vanguard VSD 9 and 10) Doc Watson On Stage Featuring Merle Watson.
Begun in 1988, The Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival happens at the end of April of each year on the campus of Wilkes Community College, Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre. It quickly grew into one of the largest acoustic music events east of the Mississippi with some 26,000 folks attending in 1993. Eight hours of video from the 1992 festival aired on North Carolina Public TV with national broadcast in the works.
One of the most prominent displays of Doc’s music to the general public was his appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s Will the Circle be Unbroken album on United Artists. He can be heard talking about the tune “Down Yonder” that the Skillet Lickers had recorded many years before, and his question to Vassar Clements, “How does it go, Vassar?” was classic. Vassar’s answer was to kick off the tune, one highlight among many on the triple LP. Doc also recorded an album (Columbia 2643) Strictly Instrumental, with Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs in 1967.
Doc Watson has a rare ability in that he can hear someone sing a song and hear the guitar licks that he wants to play. Doc believes that everyone is born with some natural talent, which each person must develop. He also believes that the area where a person grows up will have an effect on the music that they will play. Doc enjoys hearing other people’s music, and he has many favorites throughout the music industry. Regardless of style, he just loves the music. He has been noticed at Bluegrass festivals, smiling and patting his foot and talking about the artist who is performing at the time or commenting about the song they are singing.
Doc has shown the ability to overcome many tragedies in his life, but through it all he has maintained a strong approach to his music, his life with his wife Rosa Lee and their daughter Nancy. He has influenced many of today’s younger musicians.
Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, a great American who has shown much courage throughout his life, was enshrined in SPBGMA’s Preservation Hall of Greats in 1987, a fitting tribute to this wonderful man and his music.