This week we lost one of our most treasured Americans. After a full life of hard work and harder flatpicking, legendary musician Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson peacefully passed on at the age of 89. Born in Deep Gap, NC, Doc was known far and wide as a masterful guitarist and storyteller whose music spread across countless genres, including folk, bluegrass, country, gospel and blues.
Two years ago I was fortunate enough to catch Doc’s set at the Newport Folk Festival. I, like many who did not grow up in the south, knew ‘of’ Doc but was not being very familiar with his canon of work. When I saw that he was in the line-up, I knew I couldn’t miss out on the chance to see and hear him perform live. On that sunny Saturday in late July, festival goers of all ages funneled their way into the small space between the main Fort Stage and side Harbor Stage to be within an ear shot and maybe even get a glimpse of NC’s native son. Joined on stage by his longtime musical partner David Holt and grandson Richard Watson, Doc treated us all to an unforgettable musical experience that afternoon.
During his set I felt like I was sitting on Doc’s front porch listening to him pick, sing, and tell stories, rather than standing shoulder to shoulder in the hot sun with hundreds of fans. His songs told stories of love, the Lord, and life’s lesson. Between songs, he captivated the audience with tales of his childhood and his lovely wife Rosa Lee. Despite his age, Doc still possessed an impressive nimbleness in his fingers and a childlike spirit. There was a natural ease about him as he talked to his fans as if they were kin. Throughout the set, bouts of laughter and song rang out from the crowd, and it was easy to see how this humble, honest man from NC had made such a profound impact the world of music over his lifetime.
Doc Watson was one of the greatest musicians of all time, and he selflessly shared that gift with the world over the past eight decades. While Doc certainly leaves behind a tremendous musical legacy, he also leaves each of us a sweet reminder to make the best of the life we are given. Though he wanted to be seen as “just one of the people”, Doc will always be remembered as a gift from above. Rest in peace Doc.