Arthel "Doc" Watson, one of the all-time virtuosos of Appalachian guitar and a beloved figure in both the bluegrass and Americana communities, passed away Tuesday night at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, a statement on his Web site www.docsguitar.com said. He was 89.
It was reported a few days ago that Watson had entered the hospital after a fall. He underwent surgery on Saturday, but according to news reports, doctors called family members to Watson's side Sunday afternoon as his condition became grave.
Born March 3, 1923, near Deep Gap, North Carolina, Watson lost his sight before the age of one. He started guitar as a young teen and was playing professionally by the time he was 18.
An avid student of not only bluegrass but also Piedmont blues, in 1953 Watson joined Jack Williams's swing band, where he learned to play fiddle leads on his Les Paul Gibson. He would later transfer this skill to acoustic guitar, and it would remain his signature throughout his career.
Concurrent with the folk revival of the early '60s, Watson began to play solo acoustic or with a trio, concentrating on his vast catalog of old-time tunes. His first taste of fame came at the historic 1963 Newport Folk Festival.
His first solo album came by 1964, and Watson was on his way to becoming a folk icon, not only because of his playing skills but because of his extensive knowledge of mountain music. He was the genuine article, a true link to the earliest days of bluegrass and Appalachian folk music.
By the 1970s, Watson was worldwide. His performance of "Tennessee Stud" on the ground-breaking Nitty Gritty Dirt Band album Will the Circle Be Unbroken became his calling card and show-stopper. Watson would go on to win seven Grammy awards.
He toured with son Eddie Merle for 15 years until the younger Travis was killed in a fluke tractor accident at the family farm in 1985. With help from friends, Watson instituted the annual Merlefest, which books a range of bands operating within the parameters of Americana.
Originally playing Gibson guitars, Watson eventually had his own line of guitars built by Gallagher Guitars, the G-50. President Bill Clinton awarded him the National Medal of Arts in 1997, and he was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Association Hall of Fame in 2000.
Sunday afternoon as word of his condition spread, Facebook was alive with memories and Watson clips such as his 1988 interview with Fresh Air's Terry Gross. Watson was one of only a handful of old-time Appalachian musicians left with ties back to the earliest days of the bluegrass tradition.
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