North Carolina folk icon Arthel “Doc” Watson died today at the age of 89. The news comes after reports that Watson was in critical condition after falling at home. He did not break any bones, but his daughter reported that he was “very sick.” Watson later underwent abdominal surgery this weekend, and it was confirmed by The Associated Press that he died today.
Known for his flatpicking guitar style and comforting baritone voice, Watson was an instrumental part of the folk revival of the mid-late 20th century, and his knowledge of traditional American music was unparalleled. He was a pioneer in the way he blended country, folk, blues and bluegrass playing techniques, and was famous for how he adapted fiddle standards for the guitar.
Born in Deep Gap, N.C., Watson lost his sight at the age of one. He first came to the nation’s attention after performing at the Newport Folk Festival in 1963, and continued to record his first solo album the next year. 1964 is also when he would begin touring with his son Merle. The father and son would tour and record together until 1985 when Merle died in a tragic tractor accident on the family’s farm.
In 1988, Watson founded MerleFest to honor his late son. It is held annually in Wilkesboro, N.C. and is now offers a variety of workshops and musical performances that take place across 14 stages.
Watson was widely honored later in life. In 1997 he received the National Medal of the Arts from President Clinton, and in 2000 he was inducted into International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor. Watson has won seven Grammys, including the Lifetime Achievement Award in 2004.