Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson was born March 3, 1923 in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina. At the age of one, he lost his eyesight after developing a severe ocular infection that was compounded by a pre-existing vascular disorder. Watson came from a musical family, so as soon as the boy’s hands were big enough, his father placed a harmonica in them. By age five, little Arthel Lane was picking a banjo and learning chords on a $12 Stella guitar.
Spontaneously nicknamed “Doc” in his late teens by an audience member, this child would one day come to be known as “the Godfather of all flatpickers” and “a powerful singer and a tremendously influential picker who virtually invented the art of playing mountain fiddle tunes on the flattop guitar” according to Folklore Productions.
From the early ’60s onward, Doc became better and better known for his rare and precious ability to re-contextualize the old (some might’ve said “musty”) southern Appalachian folk traditions of balladry and bluegrass as vibrantly contemporary forms. Decades later, all of his Grammy-winning records still sound fresh– full of life and oxygen and timeless pathos.
Watson, who experienced a hell of a lot of tragedy and hardship in his lifetime, remained a humble, self-sufficient and generous artist to the last, telling a close friend, David Holt, toward the end of his life that he hoped to be remembered as “just as a good ol’ down-to-earth boy that didn’t think he was perfect and that loved music [...] I’d like to leave quite a few friends behind and I hope I will. Other than that, I don’t want nobody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I’m just one of the people … just me.” (via)
Last year, when a life-size bench statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C. (at the very spot where Watson had busked for pennies in the nineteen-forties and fifties to support his family), Doc requested that inscription read precisely that: simply “Just One of the People.” And so it was.
Rest in Peace, Doc Watson. (1923 – 2012)