Doc Watson

In the Mountains: The life and legacy of Doc Watson

The blind guitarist from Deep Gap, North Carolina who shared the joy of folk music with the world will be honored Nov. 13 with a celebratory concert


Music is a powerful force that connects families, strengthens communities, uplifts individuals, and preserves history. In Appalachia, music is also the link between past, present, and future and a reminder of our common humanity. Nobody knew that better than the High Country’s own Doc Watson.  

Watson is a local hero to residents of northwestern North Carolina, but he also played on some of the biggest stages in the world. Professor of Appalachian Studies and Grammy-nominated author Ted Olson said that one reason Watson was such an enduring artist was his ability to straddle “two worlds”—to captivate national audiences while holding true to his Appalachian roots.  

“The musical traditions that Doc brought with him were about human communication,” Olson said. “I think that the region’s values, like a respect for nature and a respect for human dignity, shine through in Doc’s music. I think people recognize that humanity and humility in Doc.”  

On Nov. 12, Craft Recordings is releasing a four-CD box set titled “Doc Watson—Life’s Work: A Retrospective,” the most comprehensive collection of Watson’s recordings to date. The set spans Watson’s career, from his previously unreleased first known recording to his collaborations with Allison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Earl Scruggs, and his son Merle, among others.  

The John B. Stephenson Center for Appalachia is hosting a concert on Saturday, Nov. 13, to commemorate the set’s release, as well as Watson’s overall legacy. Olson, the producer of the compilation and author of its 88-page book, will speak at the event, and musicians Jack Lawrence, Wayne Henderson, Jack Hinshelwood, Trevor McKenzie, and Mike Compton and the ETSU Old-Time Ramblers will perform.  

Kathy Olson, the director of the Stephenson Center, said, “The Stephenson Center for Appalachia is proud to be able to offer the college and local community a chance to celebrate and honor Doc Watson's life and music. Music is an integral part of the culture of Appalachia, and no one exemplified this more than Doc Watson, both in his life and in his approach to music. Watching Doc Watson's performance and listening to his music provides a musical experience that has influenced and inspired musicians across all musical genres and offers an empirical vision of Appalachia's cultural heritage.” 

(Photo Credit: Hugh Morton Collection)

Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born on March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Like many Appalachian homes, the Watson house was filled with music. In a 1970 interview with Ron Stanford, Watson recalled his earliest memories of music, which included the church congregation harmonizing and his mother singing while working.  

Watson had a natural musical talent that was encouraged by his parents. He received harmonicas for Christmas and his first banjo was one his father built by hand. Watson earned a beginner guitar after learning to play a bit on a borrowed instrument, and later spent the money he earned from selling chopped wood on a Sears Silvertone.  

The guitar became Watson’s signature instrument, and his main source of income. An eye infection left Watson blind before the age of two, and music became both a passion and a way to support himself and eventually his family. Watson started walking into Boone to play on street corners, performing popular country and bluegrass songs.  

By 1941, Watson had gained some local recognition. He played on radio shows in Lenoir (which was where he got the nickname “Doc”—his given name was considered “too long” for radio) and participated in the Boone Fiddler’s Convention at Appalachian State University. His big career break came in 1953 when he was invited to join a country and western swing band in Johnson City, Tennessee. He learned to play fiddle tunes on both the electric and acoustic guitar so the band could accompany square dances.  

During the 1950s, America underwent a folk music revival. Music fans and academics alike developed a renewed interest in folk music. In 1960, Ralph Rinzler, a folklorist and folk musician from the northeast, came down to North Carolina, where he met Clarence “Tom” Ashley at the Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, and set the stage for Watson to become one of the most well-known folk musicians in the country.  

Ashley had achieved fame in Southern Appalachia during the late 1920s, but the Great Depression had put an early end to his musical career. After a few of his recordings were included in the 1952 “Anthology of American Folk Music,” Ashley was “rediscovered” by folk music enthusiasts, who began performing his songs themselves. When Rinzler met Ashley, he encouraged the musician to record his full repertoire, and asked Ashley to choose some other local artists to round out the band. And so, Watson made his first studio album appearance as the acoustic guitarist on “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's” in 1961.  

(Photo Credit: Charles Frizzell)
(Photo Credit: Lees-McRae digital archives)

As soon as the wider musical world knew what Watson could do, they were enchanted. According to Ted Olson, “Doc was the perfect person to legitimize the urban folk revival.” While other musicians were drawn to folk music and felt connected to it, Watson was born to it. 

“The Appalachian culture that Doc brought with him presented him as the region’s unofficial ambassador to the world stage,” Olson said. “He wore that role effortlessly and enthusiastically, and his humility in doing so made his listeners respect where he came from.” 

After recording with Ashley, Watson began appearing at venues around the country, including in Greenwich Village, Los Angeles, and Newport, Rhode Island, where he dazzled audiences at the Newport Folk Festival. He recorded his first solo album in 1964 under Rinzler’s musical supervision and recorded an album with his son Merle in 1965. These early albums were noted by reviewers not just for Watson’s musical skill, but for the natural way he embodied the traditional songs.   

Even as the folk revival died down in the late 1960s, Watson remained relevant thanks to his ability to understand what audiences wanted.  

“Doc had a sound that appealed to the mainstream,” Olson said. “He appealed to the musicians for his virtuosity and the breadth of his repertoire, but he transcended the role of simply being a ‘musician’s musician’ by always giving more general audiences a profound connection to America’s musical past. He took the traditional stories and songs and energized them and gave them modern shapes and identities.” 

Watson continued to tour with Merle throughout the 60s and 70s, adding bass player T. Michael Coleman in 1974. As he toured the world, Watson maintained his strong bond to his home, playing multiple times at Lees-McRae and performing with Merle at the 1973 Appalachian State University commencement ceremony—where Watson received his first honorary doctorate.   

After Merle’s untimely death in 1985, Watson continued to perform and record with Coleman and a variety of other musicians. Jack Lawrence, who will be performing at the Doc Watson commemorative concert, became Watson’s full-time musical partner in 1985, and remained so for the rest of Watson’s life. Other regular partners included David Holt and Merle’s son Richard.  

Watson kept performing until 2012, when he made his final appearance at MerleFest, the world-renowned music festival started in Merle’s honor. In 2009, Watson returned to Lees-McRae a final time as part of the Staley Distinguished Christian School Lecture Series. Olson, who had first seen Watson play live at festivals in the 1970s, was in attendance, and recalled the beautiful outpouring of affection Watson expressed as he discussed his music and faith.  

At the time of his death, Watson had recorded or been featured on over 40 albums; been awarded eight Grammys; held honorary doctorates from University of North Carolina Asheville and Berklee College of Music as well as Appalachian State University; received the North Carolina Award, the North Carolina Folk Heritage Award, a National Heritage Fellowship, and the National Medal of the Arts; been inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor; and was honored with a life-size statue on King Street in Boone.  

“If there was a musical Mount Rushmore,” Olson said, “Doc would be on it. He enriched the lives of countless people. It was like a calling to him.”  

Watson said of his music, “When I play a song, be it on the guitar or banjo, I live that song, whether it is a happy song or a sad song. Music, as a whole, expresses many things to me—everything from beautiful scenery to the tragedies and joys of life.” 

Saturday’s concert is an opportunity for those who loved Watson to again pay their respects and celebrate the music he loved. “Doc Watson: Celebrating a Life in Music” begins at 3:30 p.m. on Nov. 13 in Evans Auditorium.  

The multi-part series “In the Mountains” delves into the history of the area surrounding Lees-McRae College. 

By Emily WebbNovember 10, 2021