Merle Watson Biography
Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, born March 3, 1923 in Deep Gap, North Carolina, is a guitar player, songwriter and singer of bluegrass, folk, country, blues and gospel music. According to Doc on his three CD biographical recording "Legacy", he got the nickname "Doc" during a live radio broadcast when the announcer remarked that his given name Arthel was odd and he needed an easy nickname to go by. A fan in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" presumably in reference to the Sherlock Holmes sidekick Doctor Watson. The name stuck ever since.
An eye infection caused Doc Watson to lose his vision prior to his first birthday.
The first song Doc ever learned to play was "When Roses Bloom in Dixieland". His father was so proud that he took Doc to the store and bought him his first guitar, a $12 Stella. Doc proved to be a natural and became a prolific acoustic and electric guitar player in spite of his handicap. Seven months later he was busking on local street corners, playing Delmore, Louvin and Monroe Brothers' duets alongside his brother Linny.
In 1947, Doc married Rosa Lee Carlton. Rosa Lee is the daughter of popular fiddle player Gaither Carlton.
Doc and Rosa Lee gave birth to two children - Eddy Merle (named after country music legends Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis) in 1949 and Nancy Ellen in 1951.
In 1953, Doc joined the Jack Williams' country and western swing band on electric guitar. He also supported his family as a piano tuner.
In 1960 as the folk boom grew, Doc took the advice of folk musicologist Ralph Rinzler and began playing acoustic guitar and banjo exclusively. That move ignited Doc's career when he played on his first recording, "Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley's". He also began to tour as a solo performer at popular clubs that featured folk music and would eventually get his big break earning rave reviews for his performance at the renowned Newport Folk Festival in 1963.
He began playing with his son Merle in 1964 and the pair would perform as duo until 1985 when Merle was tragically killed in a tractor accident.
When interest in folk music waned, Doc's popularity got another boost with his performance of "Tennessee Stud" on the watershed album Will the Circle Be Unbroken. Released in 1972, that recording featured the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band playing along with legends of country and bluegrass music.
Doc plays guitar in both flatpicking and fingerpicking style, but is best known for his flatpick work. His guitar playing skills combined with his authenticity as a mountain musician made him a highly influential figure during the folk music revival. He pioneered the fast and flashy bluegrass lead guitar style which has been adopted and extended by others such as Clarence White and Tony Rice. He is also an accomplished banjo player and in the past has accompanied himself on harmonica as well.
Doc played a D-18 model C.F. Martin & Company (aka. "Martin") guitar on his earliest recordings. In 1968 he began a relationship with Gallagher Guitars when he started playing their G-50 model. His first Gallagher, which Doc refers to as "Old Hoss", is on display at the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1974, Gallagher created a customized G-50 line to meet Doc's preferred specifications. That Gallagher production model bears the Doc Watson name. In 1991, Gallagher cutomized a personal cutaway guitar for Doc that he plays to this day and refers to as "Donald" in honor of Gallagher guitar's second generation proprietor and builder, Don Gallagher.
Known also for his distinctive and rich baritone voice, he has over the years developed a vast repertoire of mountain ballads which he learned via the oral tradition of his home area in Deep Gap, North Carolina.
In 1986 he received the North Carolina Award and in 2000 he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. In 1997, Doc received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton.
In recent years, Watson has scaled back his touring schedule. However, he still plays various shows around the United States to adoring audiences. As of 2006, he is generally joined on stage by his grandson and Merle's son Richard as well as longtime musical partner David Holt.
He is host to the annual MerleFest music festival held every April at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival features a vast array of acoustic style music focusing on the folk, bluegrass, blues and old time music genres. It's named in honor of Merle Watson and is one of the most popular acoustic music festivals in the world, drawing over 85,000 music fans each year.