Folk music legend Doc Watson dies at 89

8:37 AM, May 30, 2012   |    comments
Recording Artist Doc Watson performs at the 2009 New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival at the Fair Grounds Race Course on May 1, 2009 in New Orleans. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
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(USA TODAY) -- Doc Watson played the acoustic guitar with such pure precision that Bob Dylan once compared his picking to "water running."

The folk music icon, 89, died Tuesday after a fall last week at his home in Deep Gap, N.C., and subsequent colon surgery.

Blind from infancy, Watson grew up playing harmonica and a homemade banjo but learned guitar after his father bought him a $12 Stella acoustic when he was 13. Born Arthel Lane Watson, he picked up the nickname "Doc" at the suggestion of an audience member at a radio broadcast when he was in his teens.

Though Watson was instrumental in developing the canon for 1960s folk musicians with his recordings of traditional tunes like "Deep River Blues" and "Shady Grove," he didn't play just music of the Appalachian Mountains. Before folklorist and musician Ralph Rinzler first recorded him backing old-time banjo player Clarence "Tom" Ashley in 1960, he worked with a local dance band, playing honky-tonk, rockabilly, pop and square-dance tunes.

"His adaptations of fiddle tunes to the flattop guitar virtually reinvented the instrument's role in bluegrass," journalist John Milward wrote in linear notes for the 1999 compilation The Best of Doc Watson 1964-1968, which included Watson's versions of the Eddy Arnold country hit "Tennessee Stud" and Jimmie Rodgers' "My Rough and Rowdy Ways."

A master of both fingerpicking and flatpicking styles, Watson was, along with Merle Travis and Chet Atkins, one of the most influential acoustic guitarists of the '50s and '60s. He played the 1963 and 1964 Newport Folk Festivals and became popular on the folk circuit, especially in New York and California.

"He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flatpicking and fingerpicking performance," Rinzler once wrote. "His flatpicking style has no precedent in early country music history."

His appearance on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band's 1972 Will the Circle Be Unbroken triple-album set took him to a wider audience, including fans of country, bluegrass and blues.

"There may not be a serious, committed Baby Boomer alive who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson," President Bill Clinton said when presenting Watson his National Medal of the Arts in 1997. Watson also won seven Grammys over a 33-year period and received Grammy's lifetime achievement award in 2004.

For many years, Watson toured with his son, Merle Watson, who died in a 1985 tractor accident. Merle's memory is honored by MerleFest, an annual North Carolina roots-music festival that the elder Watson hosted. Held on the last weekend in April since 1988, MerleFest draws more than 75,000 annually to Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C.

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