Doc Watson 1923-2012

by Barry Hunn

Doc Watson 1923-2012

The world lost one of the greatest guitarists who ever lived this week.  Arthel “Doc” Watson passed away this week at age 89.  “Flatpicking” the acoustic steel string guitar as we know it today, was defined by the flowing, beautiful, musical style of this humble, brilliant man.   Doc would play fiddle tunes, breakdowns, hornpipes, blues, folk songs and some rock and roll tunes with a precision and passion that has inspired generations of guitarists.  Virtually all flatpicking festivals and guitar contests owe their inspiration and “guidelines” to Doc’s style and technique.  “Playing a Doc Watson song” is a standard by which virtually all guitarists are judged and usually judge themselves.

His deep baritone voice was the perfect compliment to his dynamic guitar and his renditions of “Deep River Blues, Tennessee Stud and Last Thing On My Mind” have become classics associated closely with Doc Watson.

Like many of the truly greatest artists and performers, Doc Watson was the most down to earth and humble man you’ll ever meet.  Years ago when I was performing in a warm up act for Doc, I walked into the artist room back stage and Doc asked me what kind of guitar I was playing. I handed it to him and he ran his hands over the body (Doc was blind) and commented, “That’s a nice box son.”   Of course I asked him what kind of picks he used and how he held them.  “I use two….” He said.   “…and I hold it like this… and I didn’t make this up, I got it out of a book…” as if he had to justify himself to a dumb kid like me, that he didn’t create this pick grip, but got it from some kind of authority.  “I got it from a book by Nick Lucas…he could get some tone out of a flattop son…”

I heard a story how Bill Monroe once visited Doc and found him chopping wood outside his house.  Bill apparently was horrified that such a great guitarist, who is blind was risking his hands by chopping wood.  Doc’s response was something like, “the lord gave me these hands to do more than just pick a guitar…”

Doc also played the banjo.  He owned several Deering banjos and in fact played one of our six string banjos tuned like a guitar.  Doc embraced all kinds of music and all types of instruments.

This kind, brilliant and humble man left a trail of inspiration and goodness during his world travels.   We will all miss him and the humble grace that inspired generations.

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