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Doc Watson, Legendary Folk Guitarist, Dead At 89

Doc Watson
Rick Diamond

Doc Watson, who combined folk, bluegrass, blues and jazz guitar into a style all his own, passed away today (May 29) at the age of 89 in Winston-Salem, N.C. Last week, he had been hospitalized following a fall at his house that required colon surgery.

Watson was influential to generations of musicians who have looked to America’s folk tradition for inspiration. “To lose Earl Scruggs, Levon Helm and Doc Watson in one year is just too, too much,” Rosanne Cash tweeted upon hearing the news.

Born in Deep Gap, N.C. in 1923, Arthel Lane Watson lost his sight before his first birthday due to an eye infection that was never treated. To help him cope with being blind and impoverished, at the age of 11, his father gave him a homemade banjo made out of the skin of a dead cat.

Watson soon switched to the guitar and began playing on street corners and local contests. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest guitar players ever, popularizing the style of play known as “crosspicking,” which brought the flashy runs traditionally associated with the banjo to the acoustic guitar. But he was also adept at fingerpicking, as the videos below demonstrate.

The folk boom of the early-1960s made a star out of Watson, who got his nickname early in his career when a radio announcer told a crowd that he needed a nickname. Someone suggested “Doc” and the name stuck. In 1964, began performing and recording with his son, Merle, who tragically died in a tractor accident on the family farm in 1985. Perhaps his greatest commercial success came when he appeared on the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s 1972 album, ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken,’ which paired the folk-country-rock band with many of their influences.

Watson won eight Grammy Awards throughout his career, including a Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004. He recieved the National Medal of Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.

Next: See Other Rockers We Lost in 2012

Watch Doc Watson Play ‘Black Mountain Rag’

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Watch Doc Watson Play ‘Deep River Blues”

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