Folk music pioneer Doc Watson died on Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, of complications from abdominal surgery, his manager has confirmed. He was 89 years old. Watson had been admitted to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on May 21st, after suffering a fall at his home in nearby Deep Gap.
Born in 1923 in Deep Gap, Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson influenced generations of country, folk and bluegrass artists with his flatpicking approach to the guitar. Watson went blind at age one following an eye infection and quickly grew immersed in music thanks to his parents, who performed in the local church choir and sang secular and religious songs. By the age of five, Watson was playing the banjo and harmonica, and by 1953 he was playing electric for a local country swing band. Watson’s solo career took off following a performance at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, as folk music was developing into a cultural phenomenon; he released his solo debut, Doc Watson and Family, that same year.
Watson won seven Grammys and received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement award in 2004. In 1997, then-President Bill Clinton presented Watson with the National Medal for the Arts, in recognition of his significant impact on national heritage music.
Watson spent 15 years recording and performing music with his son Merle, who died tragically in a tractor accident in 1985, at 36 years old. Watson went on to found MerleFest, an annual acoustic music gathering held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival has become a destination event and pilgrimage for musicians as well as fans of Americana.
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While Watson had scaled back on touring in recent years, he peformed on occasion and continued to host at MerleFest. A life-size sculpture of Watson was erected in Boone, North Carolina, last year with an inscription that he had personally requested: “Just One of the People.”