Doc Watson was an acoustic guitar virtuoso—a blind, flat-picking wizard who inspired generations of bluegrass and country artists with his precise, lightning-fast licks. Yet the first stringed instrument Watson mastered wasn’t a guitar but a banjo his father built from wood, metal, and the hide of the family’s recently deceased cat. An 11-year-old Watson and his older brother Linny were tasked with skinning the kitty. “It took me and Linny two days to wash the smell off our hands,” Watson recalled. “But that banjo head was almost transparent. It did make the finest banjo head you ever saw.”
Arthel Lane Watson was born in the small farming community of Deep Gap in North Carolina’s Blue Ridge Mountains. He went blind in infancy from an untreated eye infection, said The Washington Post, but Watson’s father made sure to include him in family chores. He cut trees on the farm, and by age 13 had saved enough to buy a mail-order guitar. Watson played on street corners and on radio shows, where an announcer nicknamed him Doc. “In the 1950s, he started touring with a square-dance band that lacked a fiddler,” said NPR.org. So Watson learned how to play the fiddle parts on guitar, greatly expanding the instrument’s range within the folk repertoire.
“His own breakthrough came by accident,” said the Los Angeles Times. In 1960, Watson played backup on an album by the old-time guitarist Clarence Ashley, a North Carolina neighbor. The recording was a hit in the burgeoning folk scene, and Watson was soon hired to play colleges and festivals across the country. When folk faded in the 1970s and the country revival took over, Watson once again found himself in demand. His intricate playing on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album Will the Circle Be Unbroken won him a new generation of fans.
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Watson reaped numerous accolades throughout his career, including the National Medal of Arts in 1997. But the unassuming guitarist always shrugged off praise. “I don’t want anyone putting me on a pedestal when I leave,” he said in 2002. “I’m just one of the people.”
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