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Guitarist Doc Watson, Pioneer of Folk and Bluegrass, Dead at 89

Folk and bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson died Tuesday in Winston-Salem, North Carolina. He was 89.

The guitarist, who had been admitted to Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center on May 21 after falling at his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, died of complications from abdominal surgery.

Arthel Lane Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap. He went blind at age 1 after an eye infection but was encouraged by his parents to sing and learn guitar, later joining them in the local church choir. By age 5, he had added banjo and harmonica to his repertoire, performing religious and secular music.

After some time in a swing band, which he joined when he was 20, Watson released his first album, Doc Watson and Family, in 1963. The album gave listeners an introduction to Watson's unique flatpicking style. That same year, he performed at the Newport Folk Festival, the event that launched his career.

Watson earned the nickname "Doc" during a live radio broadcast when the announcer said Watson's real name, Arthel, was odd and he needed an easy nickname. A fan in the crowd shouted "Call him Doc!" possibly reference to Sherlock Holmes' sidekick, Doctor Watson. The name stuck.

Watson played a Martin D-18 guitar on his earliest recordings. In 1968, he began a relationship with Gallagher Guitars and used their G-50 model. His first Gallagher, which Watson called "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 Watson's specifications. In 1991, Gallagher customized a personal cutaway guitar for Watson that he played until his death and and which he called "Donald." For the past few years, Doc had been playing a Dana Bourgeois dreadnought given to him by Ricky Skaggs for his 80th birthday.

Watson spent several years recording and performing music with his son Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 at age 36 (Check out the On Stage album for a great example of what the duo sounded like in concert). Watson founded MerleFest in his son's honor; the annual acoustic music gathering in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, has become a pilgrimage for musicians and fans of Americana.

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.

A life-size sculpture of Watson was erected in Boone, North Carolina, last year with the inscription "Just One of the People."

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Damian is Editor-in-Chief of Guitar World magazine. In past lives, he was GW’s managing editor and online managing editor. He's written liner notes for major-label releases, including Stevie Ray Vaughan's 'The Complete Epic Recordings Collection' (Sony Legacy) and has interviewed everyone from Yngwie Malmsteen to Kevin Bacon (with a few memorable Eric Clapton chats thrown into the mix). Damian, a former member of Brooklyn's The Gas House Gorillas (opens in new tab), was the sole guitarist in Mister Neutron (opens in new tab), a trio that toured the U.S. and released three albums (opens in new tab). He now plays in two NYC-area bands.