Vale Doc Watson 1923 - 2012

30 May 2012 | 12:59 pm | Dan Condon

Blind at the age of two, married to his cousin at 23, folk music star in his 40s; Doc Watson's life was unorthodox, but the musical legacy he leaves is incredible.

Pioneering roots singer-songwriter Doc Watson has passed away at the age of 89.

Arthel Lane Watson, who was blinded by an eye infection before his second birthday, is one of the most influential acoustic guitarists to have ever played the instrument; his approach to flatpicking replicated by thousands of guitarists the world over throughout the years. After growing up playing the harmonica, Watson received his first stringed instrument – a banjo – made by his father, who used the skin of his family's deceased cat to make the head of the instrument.

It was during a live radio broadcast in the early 1950s, on which he was performing with one of the dance bands he was a part of in the earlier part of his career, that he was granted the name Doc after the announcer declared Arthel too difficult to remember. The name stuck.

Watson was 41 when he recorded his first album, an eponymous record which featured no other musicians, just Watson playing predominantly old traditional songs on guitar, banjo and harmonica as well as singing.

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The year after this record Watson cut his second record, this time with his son Merle, called Watson & Son. The record showed their musical relationship was already in full bloom and it was a relationship that would continue for decades, Merle playing right hand man to his father up until 1985 when he was tragically killed in a tractor accident. After Merle's death Doc struggled to continue playing and considered throwing it in, but thankfully for us he stayed strong, eventually establishing MerleFest in his honour, a festival which celebrated its 25th year in April.

With over 50 albums and seven Grammy Awards to his name, Watson leaves one hell of a legacy. But it is perhaps in the playing styles of those who have come since him that his greatest legacy lies; both his playing style and his profound knowledge of American folk music tradition have been invaluable sources of inspiration for many players since Watson first came to public attention in the mid-1960s.

He was also a master storyteller, something that can be heard on any of his live records. It's the most obvious example of how Watson injected his own personality and influence into predominantly old traditional songs or covers of artists whose songwriting Watson admired. Of course a deeper look shows a considerable number of musical flourishes which added such an exciting new element to the music, making him such an awe-inspiring interpreter of song.

Doc Watson took a fall earlier this week and while he didn't break any bones, he was required to have surgery due to a pre-existing condition which was agitated by the accident. Following the surgery he was listed in critical condition, but passed away in the Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina on Tuesday 29 May at the age of 89. He is survived by his wife of over 65 years, Rosa Lee Carlton (who is also Watson's second cousin), his daughter Nancy Ellen, his brother David, two grandchildren and several great-grandchildren.

Hear some of Doc Watson's finest songs below.