Bluegrass legend Doc Watson passes

I woke up to the news that flat picking legend Doc Watson passed away. A truly sad day for bluegrass fans. Blind from an early age his refined sense of touch could be heard in the way he picked the guitar. He had the ability to play with intensity without muddying the crisp tone of the strings. His fluid sound never seemed heavy handed even while playing at great speed.

He lived in Deep Gap, NC right down the road from my alma mater Appalachian State. One night while having dinner with friends I looked over to realize he was eating at the table beside ours. He was a fixture of the local community and the school recently honored him with the Doc Watson Endowment for Appalachian Studies. His legacy is a great reminder that mountain music is a living tradition in Appalachia.

One of Doc's many great contributions to bluegrass was the founding of Merlefest in North Wilkesboro, NC. The festival named after his son Merle, who tragically died in 1985, has grown into one of the year's best festivals for bluegrass and old time music. It happens to fall on the weekend surrounding my birthday so I have many fond bluegrass birthday memories. The last time I attended in 2000 the bluegrass-influenced jam band The String Cheese Incident was on the bill. The crowd was an entertaining mix of patch work wearing neohippies and baptist church going mountain music fans. The cross over appeal of bluegrass into the counter culture dates back to the early 1960's when pickers like Doc and Bill Monroe toured college campuses during the era's folk revival.

For those not familiar with bluegrass I have included two examples of his playing. The video above is one of my favorite songs that Doc would play. This version of Jimmy Driftwood's Tennessee Stud opens with a close up of Doc's fingers moving effortless over the fret board. The video below shows Doc playing Summertime with his son Merle. Doc's voice is a great complement to Merle's string bending intro.

R.I.P. Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson 1923-2012

Click here to listen to a 1988 Fresh Air interview with Doc Watson.

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