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2000 Inductee – Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson

DocWatson

Born: March 3, 1923, Stoney Fork Township, near Deep Gap, North Carolina
Died: May, 29, 2012, Winston-Salem, NC
Primary Instrument: Guitar

“The banjo was something I really liked, but when the guitar came along, to me that was my first love in music.”
-Quoted in Dirty Linen magazine, June/July 1995.

Composed

BMI’s database credits Doc Watson with 136 published compositions, co-compositions, and arrangements including:

“Doc’s Guitar”
“Southbound”
“Your Lone Journey”

Early influences

  • Delmore Brothers
  • Jimmie Rodgers
  • Carter Family
  • Merle Travis
  • Chet Atkins

Came to fame with

  • Clarence Ashley, on folk tours and recordings, 1960-1962

Performed with

  • Jack Williams and the Country Gentlemen (North Carolina), 1953-1962
  • Clarence Ashley and Friends, 1960-1962
  • Doc Watson, 1962-1970
  • Doc & Merle Watson, 1970-1985
  • Doc Watson, 1985-present

Led the way

  • The most significant influence on lead guitar in bluegrass music. Most famous for his flat-picked arrangements of fiddle tunes, Doc Watson is also widely appreciated for his finger-picking guitar, old-time banjo playing, harmonica, and rich vocals.
  • Released more than 40 albums.
  • Received seven Grammy awards in 1973, 1974, 1979, 1986, 1990, 2002, and 2006, and the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.
  • National Heritage Fellowship, National Endowment for the Arts, 1988.
  • National Medal of Arts, 1997.
  • Bluegrass Hall of Fame, 2000.

By the Way

  • Wife Rosa Lee is the daughter of Gaither Carlton, a neighbor and old-time fiddler. Married in 1947, Rosa Lee and Doc composed “Your Lone Journey” about their separations during Doc’s early ’60s travels as a performer
  • Son Eddy Merle (named for Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis, and the namesake of Merlefest) was Doc’s musical and touring partner from his middle teens until his death at 36 in a farming accident.
  • Appeared at the first multi-day bluegrass festival, Fincastle, Virginia, 1965.
  • Bill Monroe loved an introductory run Doc played with him on an instrumental version of “You’ll Find Her Name Written There” and renamed it “Watson Blues.”
  • Doc’s first Gallagher guitar, which he named “Old Hoss,” is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee.
  • The Doc & Merle Watson Mountain Folk Art Museum is under development at the Historic Cove Creek School in Sugar Grove NC.

Because Doc came to fame in the 1960s, after he had turned 40, it is easy to forget that he was born earlier (1923) than any of the other pioneers of bluegrass lead guitar: Earl Scruggs (1924), George Shuffler (1925), Don Reno (1927), Dan Crary (1939), Clarence White (1944), or Tony Rice (1951). Doc’s childhood musical influences pre-dated bluegrass. Indeed, the young man listened to the very same 78-rpm records, radio broadcasts, and local live performances that shaped the founders of bluegrass.

The most important thing to know about Doc Watson is that he is rooted in a particular place. Deep Gap is a pass in western North Carolina’s Blue Ridge mountains, named by Daniel Boone. Doc was born and has spent his entire life there. Watauga County has a rich musical tradition (birthplace of country recording pioneer Al Hopkins) and is near to other old-time music heartlands in Virginia, West Virginia, Tennessee, and Kentucky.

In his first year of life, Watson lost his eyesight to an infection. The sixth of nine siblings, he never lacked for companionship and was expected to pull his weight around the home and farm. The Watsons were a singing family. His mother sang ballads around the house and to lull the children to sleep. His father led shape-note hymns at the Mt. Patron Baptist Church.

Given a harmonica at age six, the boy devised a single-string accompaniment using a steel wire stretched across the woodshed door. When he was seven, the family acquired a wind-up record player and a large stack of old records. His father made him a banjo at age 11, which Doc improved with a hide head after his grandmother’s cat died. By then, Watson had entered the Governor Moorehead School for the Blind at Raleigh. There he was exposed to classical and jazz music, including recordings by guitarists Django Reinhardt and Nick Lucas.

A friend at school taught him a few guitar chords. Not knowing this, Watson’s father offered to help buy his son a guitar if he could learn to accompany himself on one song. Doc’s first guitar was a $12 Stella, acquired at age 13. About five years later, he financed his first Martin instrument by playing on the street for tips. At a station in Lenoir, an announcer mentioned that Arthel wasn’t a good radio name and a member of the studio audience shouted, “Call him Doc!” The nickname stuck.

After his marriage to a neighboring fiddler’s daughter at 24 (Rosa Lee was 16), Watson tuned pianos to support his growing family. Eddy Merle was born in 1949 and Nancy Ellen in 1951. In 1953, Doc got a job playing electric guitar in a local country band. Unable to afford two instruments, he traded his Martin for a Gibson Les Paul. The group often lacked a fiddler and Watson taught himself fiddle tunes on the electric instrument, in addition to the popular finger-style music of Merle Travis and Chet Atkins.

Folklorist/musician Ralph Rinzler came to the Union Grove, North Carolina, Fiddler’s Convention in April, 1960. There he rediscovered pioneer recording artist Clarence Ashley playing under the name “Tom” with a pick-up band that included Doc Watson. Rinzler arranged for Ashley to record for Folkways. Like many in the region, Ashley knew that Doc was the most talented musician in those parts and brought him and his Les Paul to the session (Rinzler found an acoustic instrument for Watson to play).

Doc made several northern tours with Ashley. Most folk venues lacked the budget for a full group, so in 1961 he began playing as a solo artist. He traveled with Ralph Rinzler or by inter-city bus, performing at first with borrowed guitars. He mined the song repertoires of his family, in-laws, and neighbors for material that would be considered traditional, fresh, and interesting. He went back into the old-time and blues records he had heard as a child and – for a time, at least – packed away the jazz, rock, and modern country for which he was locally best known.

Doc worked hard on his stage persona, a cross between fellow North Carolinian Andy Griffith and a yet-to-emerge Garrison Keillor. Sensitive, complex, and capable in a range of fields (from rockabilly to electronics), Watson knew that the young, disoriented generation that came to his concerts and bought his records most warmed to that side of his personality that was fatherly, calm, and perfectly straightforward. They loved the mountain man who could teach them about country ways in terms that were simple but clever, who could play with lightning speed and stunning precision, and who could educate them about his music and the people and places from which it arose.

Folk music artists at the time consisted mostly of elderly pioneers, revered but exotic and difficult to approach, and young urban revivalists. Doc Watson stood out, an authentic folk musician who could entertain and relate to them as others – and their own fathers – couldn’t. Doc was the hit of the 1963 Newport Folk Festival and quickly became a star, but in cities, at campuses, and on Folkways then Vanguard records. This was a very different path from that of rural contemporaries who worked the Grand Ole Opry and the bluegrass circuit.

In the 1960s, Ralph Rinzler managed both Doc Watson and Bill Monroe, booking them into the same colleges, festivals, and folk clubs. When Doc and Bill appeared together, they enjoyed recreating 1930s Monroe Brothers songs that Watson had memorized from 78 rpm records, and soon added this feature to their stage show.

In December of 1966 Lester Flatt & Earl Scruggs invited Doc Watson to Nashville to add his widely popular flatpicking guitar to a Columbia album called “Strictly Instrumental,” issued under all three of their names. Five years later, Watson was a participant with Scruggs, Jimmy Martin, Vassar Clements, his guitar hero Merle Travis, and others on the phenomenal Will the Circle Be Unbroken project.

Folk music faded as a commercial phenomenon, but Doc Watson was just hitting his stride as a performer and recording artist. Freed from the pressures to make only traditional music, Doc brought modern elements back to his sound. He also added other members to his ensemble, including T. Michael Coleman on electric bass and, after son Merle’s death in 1985, Jack Lawrence, Marty Stuart, and grandson Richard on second guitar. There was quite a bit of bluegrass in the mix, including the album Riding the Midnight Train, with guests Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, and Alan O’Bryant.

Now in his eighth decade, Doc Watson has reduced his touring but is still a revered figure in American music. Although he has never represented himself as a bluegrass artist, he is a favorite with bluegrass fans, cited as a primary influence by all of the increasingly prominent flatpicking lead guitarists in the genre. Just as he mined the repertoire of his predecessors, young artists are introducing Doc’s music to their generation. Alison Krauss brought “Down in the Valley to Pray” to the 2000 movie O Brother Where Art Thou and “Your Lone Journey” to the Grammy-winning Raising Sand she recorded in 2008 with Robert Plant, an original member of Led Zeppelin.

Fred Bartenstein is a bluegrass music historian, journalist, and broadcaster, based in Yellow Springs, Ohio.

“Doc has smelled the hot wet feathers of the Sunday dinner chicken and blown sharp notes on the buckeye whistle. He has been to baptizings in the creek and can take either the Methodist or Baptist side of the once-in-grace-forever argument…. Doc has picked the fiddle tunes when the fiddler didn’t show and played rock ‘n roll for the drunks at the VFW because, by God, ten dollars was a lot of money and he had a family to feed and clothe.”
Joe Wilson in “Doc Watson: Just One of Us,” Muleskinner News, June, 1974.

“The late Ralph Rinzler, the wonderful guy who helped me get started, said, ‘Doc, play the old-time things till you get your foot in the door, and then you can expand.’”
Quoted by Barry Mazor in “Meeting Jimmie Rodgers,” 2009.

“As we discussed the events and changes in Doc’s life during the past 15 years, I asked if any particular one thing stood out as the most important. Doc thought for a moment, smiling… ‘One day I came home from a trip, sat down, and wrote to the people with the State, and told them I wouldn’t be needing their help anymore.’”
Joe Wilson in “Doc Watson: Just One of Us,” Muleskinner News, June, 1974.

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