I remember the first trip we did," Watson said in a 2008 interview. We borrowed a little station wagon from the late Clarence Ashley's son and drove to California and back, and I remember thinking, 'Lord, what a big old country this is.' I was a mountaineer, just a country boy. I'd never been nowhere like that before."
Within a few years, Watson seemingly had been everywhere, as his prowess on guitar and his vast store of traditional Southern music made the blind musician an internationally celebrated artist.
Watson, 89, who recorded more than 50 albums and won seven Grammy Awards, died Tuesday at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C., according to his representatives at Folklore Productions, a Santa Monica management company. He had undergone colon surgery Thursday.
Although Watson is perhaps most acclaimed for his astonishing technique in both the flat-pick and finger-picking styles, his greatest contribution touched on broader concerns.
Doc arrived at a point where there was the beginning of an audience for traditional music, but not really an informed group of people," Ash Grove owner Ed Pearl said last week.
Doc was by far the best traditional artist I ever met at talking openly about his people, and just having a casual conversation with an audience.… He was among the most versatile and un-self-conscious bringers of Southern white culture to the Ash Grove possible, and he did that right from the beginning."
With his natural ease as a storyteller, his heartfelt baritone singing, his repository of material and his facility on guitar, Watson was a rare combination of authenticity and artistry.
His example inspired a generation of musicians to explore obscure musical pockets, as well as to upgrade their instrumental technique toward the remarkably high standards he established. He is one of the prime sources of the hybrid, roots-conscious Americana genre, and a key influence on such noted players as Norman Blake, Tony Rice, Buddy Miller and Dan Crary.
Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become," Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Assn., told The Times. He played different styles of American roots music. He played traditional country, he played what would be traditional folk, he played what was traditional bluegrass, he played gospel. All those elements sort of interwoven, that's what Buddy Miller does today.… Nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson's appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world."
He received a National Medal of Arts in 1997 and a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy in 2004.
Remarkably, Watson was well into his 40s when he embarked on a serious music career.