Jimi Hendrix, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page get the attention as the major guitar gods, as do a plethora of other superb rock musicians, but a humble, blind guitarist from the little town of Deep Gap, North Carolina playing an acoustic guitar in flatpicking style is arguably one of the finest guitarists of the 20th century, right there alongside Django Reinhardt. Not to diminish the abilities of rock’s greatest axes, but as pretty much any guitar player will tell you, electric guitars are easier to play than acoustic ones and the stacks of amps and effects pedals can make a mid-range talent sound far better than they actually are. With an acoustic, there’s no room to hide. It’s just you and the strings and those strings don’t lie.
Watson (and Reinhardt) was the pre-eminent acoustic six-string player in any genre and he brought the instrument to the forefront of country, bluegrass and folk as a lead instrument playing parts traditionally reserved for the fiddle or banjo, or in Bill Monroe’s case, the mandolin. But then it was Earl Scruggs, another North Carolina mountain boy, who largely converted the banjo into a finger-picking lead from its previously dominant style of clawhammer rhythm. So, there’s clearly something in those mountain waters producing great pickers. Blind from birth, Watson pioneered the flatpicking style that carries the lead melody in song within country, folk and bluegrass. That, in turn, has influenced countless players across musical genres.
He played right up to the end, as all the country greats do and even appeared at this year’s Merlefest, the annual folk festival held in Wilkesboro, NC and named in honor of his son Merle, a talented musician, who passed away young from a tractor accident. By way of tribute, we offer this gallery of video highlights…
Doc Watson & Earl Scruggs Play at Doc’s Home
“Deep River Blues”
Doc Watson and David Grisman - “Shady Grove”
“Black Mountain Rag”
The Three Pickers (Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Ricky Skaggs)
Bill Monroe & Doc Watson Duet - “Sally Goodin” - 1990
Doc Watson - I’ll Fly Away (Merlefest 2012)