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Doc Watson

Though he's not the type to call attention to it, Doc Watson can claim a rightful place as one of the rare innovators within American music. His flat-pick marriage of mountain folklore, country, bluegrass and blues has influenced generations of acoustic musicians and fans from all walks. Combining innate talent, hand-me-down tradition and simple rural integrity, Watson helped define cultural movements which have transcended the boundaries of Nashville or Greenwich Village, and earned respect as prevalent at the Smithsonian as it is in his lifelong residence of Deep Gap, N.C.

Indeed, Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson's career highlights are a testament to the impact his traditional guitar and vocal archives have made upon the whole of American music. Whether it's been his hand in the folk revival of the '60s or the current bluegrass boon, his five Grammy awards, being named recipient of such honors as the National Heritage Award and the National Medal of Arts, Watson's music has truly transcended typecast or specific audience.

Born in 1923, Watson's music was flavored by the most mythical of country surroundings. "There was no such thing as indoor plumbin'," he told People magazine in 1987. "In real cold weather you'd wake up in the morning with frost on your pillow. When hard-blowin' snow came, you had to go up in the attic to sweep up the snow and put it out through the shutter window." Despite such conditions, alongside the physical setback of having lost his sight in infancy, Watson's upbringing was one rich in the areas of kinship, music and folklore. His love of both the family's Victrola and radio broadcasts (such as those from the Grand Ole Opry) was complimented by gospel-choir parents and eight additional siblings to accompany. In a perfect case of mountain irony, Watson's father was working on a banjo for his young son just about the same time his grandmother's cat had gotten too "old, decrepit and blind" to eat, walk or do anything be but be "miserable." The result: "That cat skin made a fine banjo head," and in turn an artist was born.

Watson eventually gravitated to the acoustic guitar, and following his only true instruction at 14 from "... a friend of mine, Paul Montgomery, who showed me a few chords," he managed to wile an instrument of his own. Upon hearing him tinker on a borrowed flattop, Watson's father agreed to help buy him a guitar if he learned to play a song before the workday was out. "He didn't know I knew those chords. Right away I played [The Carter Family's] 'When The Roses Bloom In Dixieland.'" The result was the breaking open of Watson's piggy bank, which supplemented the purchase of a Stella guitar at the age of 13. Seven months later he was busking on local street corners, playing Delmore, Louvin and Monroe Brothers' duets alongside his brother Linny.

Just about any organic style he came in touch with would serve as teacher at one point. Over the years, recordings of artists such as the Carter Family, Jimmy Rodgers, the Delmore Brothers, Mississippi John Hurt, Chet Atkins, Merle Travis and others have bolstered his repertoire of hymns and ballads. Given the tensions of the rural South at the time, one might assume that Watson's multi-cultural country/blues/folk fusion was a more recent inclusion. But he's quick to point out the contrary. "Everybody here in these mountains listened to blues like I did as a boy. Whether delta or white blues or other, they're blues, man. They're talking about troubles and heartache. They're troubles put to music ... and music is a bridge between cultures."

And transcend cultures he has, ever since being 'discovered' in 1960 by Northern folk documentarian (and future Smithsonian assistant secretary) Ralph Rinzler. Following a chance meeting while recording authentic music of the rural South, Rinzler and associate Eugene Earle were introduced to Watson, and were struck by his ability. Rinzler convinced Watson to embark with other musicians in order to tour the burgeoning folk circuit of the time, and within four years Watson became a key figure of the genre's resurgence -- as culminated by his 1963 show-stealing performance at the Newport Folk Festival and initial recordings on the Folkways label, and his debut, solo Vanguard recording: 1964's Doc Watson. In terms of instrumental prowess, Watson's flatpicking technique instantly set him apart in traditional music, and would contribute to the redefinition of the guitar as a lead within the bluegrass setting. It was his adaptation of 'fiddle tunes' to the six-string, which proved the most immediately recognizable innovation. Though shades of this had been touched upon by Nashville artists like Hank Garland, no one prior to Watson had incorporated a flatpick technique so dexterous and fully realized in the fiddle style. He explained to Country Guitar magazine, "I loved the fiddle so good that I got one when I was 18. I kept it, I guess, 12 to 15 months. I could note the thing pretty good, but my bowin' hand just wouldn't do it." (Truth be known, Watson says he "plays fiddle like a hungry pig.") The consequent evolution of his playing has enabled him to master bluegrass, western swing, country, rockabilly, folk, blues and other diverse styles -- all personalized with a cascade of tasteful notes and a smoky-oak baritone.

Probably the single most challenging event marking Watson's life -- both personally and professionally -- was the death of his son Merle in 1985. A prodigious talent of guitar (flatpicking, fmgerpicking and slide) and banjo, Merle's career alongside his father began in 1964 at the age of 15. "We got used to each other. He was good, but also the best friend I ever had, and it showed in his music," Watson told Dirty Linen magazine. "He could feel what I was going to do; he could anticipate it. The same way with me. It was that way between us when we were on the stage." Though cut short, Merle's legacy thrives via a collection of inspired (and Grammy-winning) recordings alongside Doc, as well as from the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival (MerleFest). The 4-day event, which has become one of the most noted acoustic music festivals in America, draws together today's top-notch performers and tens of thousands of fans to Wilkesboro, N.C. every spring.

Watson's private lifestyle has toned down significantly since Merle's passing, but his music is as forthcoming as ever. While his days are predominately spent alongside his wife of 54 years, Rosa Lee, record companies and music enthusiasts from all walks continue to revel in his material. In addition to reissues by Vanguard and current label Sugar Hill (such as The Best of Doc Watson, 1964-1968, Reflections by Chet Atkins and Doc Watson and Home Sweet Home), Watson still performs select shows annually, and has continued to record new material. (Last year's Third Generation Blues even paired him alongside grandson Richard and was nominated for a Grammy.) Of course the enduring homage from artists he has inspired over the years still lures plenty of new listeners as well, proving that on many levels of appreciation his musicianship transcends, and more specifically unifies the most critical and disparate of climates.

- courtesy of Country.com

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