Doc Watson Statue
Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012) was both a local musical hero and “Just One of The People” as the King Street statue of him states. Blinded since infancy, Doc exhibited musical passion and talent at a young age, starting first with harmonica and then learning on a banjo his father made for his 11th birthday. Doc played for tips in Downtown Boone and tuned pianos for a living before his lightning-fast bluegrass guitar talent was “discovered” in 1960 by Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzler. Soon Doc was a shining star of the American folk revival, touring across the country with his son and musical partner, Merle. Since Doc’s death in 2012, he has remained an international representative of the High Country and an inspiration to local and distant musicians of all ages who carry on his legacy.
Backstory and Context
When Arthel “Doc” Watson (1923-2012), the blind musical sensation from Deep Gap in Watauga County, NC, would play his favorite customized Gallagher acoustic guitar, his pick would fly across the strings and his fingers would move along the neck at speeds never seen before. His easy storytelling between tunes and fatherly love for his son and musical partner Merle set him apart just as much as his musical abilities.1
Doc suffered an eye infection as an infant, permanently blinding him. He exhibited musical passion and talent at a young age, starting first by “banging on anything that could produce an interesting sound” before playing harmonica.2 He began learning banjo when his father made one for his 11th birthday using the skin of a family cat that had recently died.3 As a young man at home in Deep Gap, Doc fended off depression by sawing wood, milking the cow, getting into trouble with his brothers, and proving that he could do more than people thought a blind person could.4 Around the same time, he fell in love with his Deep Gap neighbor and future wife, Rosa Lee Carlton. He recalls how he first felt about her, “Every breath of every day was her name”.5
Music ran in the Watson and Carlton families. The couple’s fathers played and taught them their first notes on the banjo6. Doc had played in Downtown Boone with his brother Linney,7 and his other brother David read songbooks to him.8 Merle learned guitar at age 15 from Rosa Lee while Doc was on tour. In 1963 an album called The Watson Family including six family members was released.
Doc represented the High Country to the world, and his story is Boone’s story in many ways. As unrest spread throughout the US in the 1960s, the folk revival satisfied American’s longing for simpler times, and Doc, an icon of that revival, seemed to personify the country’s rustic heritage.9
Doc honored musical and cultural traditions but did not linger in the past. Therefore, he called his music “traditional plus”, “meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we [Doc and Merle] were in the mood to play”.10 Doc had played electric guitar in a rockabilly and Western swing group in Johnson City in the 1950s.11 Ralph Rinzler, the folklorist who later founded the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, “discovered” Doc in Deep Gap in 1960 and fell in love with his playing style, which brought new sounds to traditional mountain tunes.12 Together with Merle, they shared those sounds with the world winning three Grammy Awards along the way. When Merle died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985, Doc founded the Merlefest traditional plus music festival in Wilkesboro to honor his memory.
Like Doc Watson, Boone and the High Country are also popularly thought of as isolated and traditional. In contrast, Doc Watson and the Boone area are actually connected to people, places, and ideas throughout the world through music, education, and economy. The lives of humble yet groundbreaking role models like the Watsons, who persevered in hardship and faced changing times by building on time-honored traditions, represent the complex heritage of the High Country.
In 2011, under a year before Doc’s death at age 89, he humbly approved a statue of himself on King Street in Boone, requesting the modest inscription: “Doc Watson: Just One of the People”. He played next door at the Jones House Community Center that day. Boone has not forgotten him. The town celebrates the statewide holiday, Doc Watson Appreciation Day, on the third Saturday in July, and on snowy days it is common to find that a kind friend has wrapped Doc’s statue in a scarf.
2 Gustavson, Kent. Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson. New York, NY: Blooming Twig Books, 2010. p. 59.
3 Miller, Dan. “Doc Watson.” Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, October 1998. Accessed on November 20, 2016. http://www.flatpick.com/category_s/2226.htm.
4 Gustavson, Kent. Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson. New York, NY: Blooming Twig Books, 2010. p. 13, 51.
5 "Final Notes, Rosa Lee Carlton Watson." The Old-Time Herald, November 2012. Accessed October 25, 2016. http://www.oldtimeherald.org/here there/final-notes/rosa-lee-watson.html.
6 Miller, Dan. “Doc Watson.” Flatpicking Guitar Magazine, October 1998. Accessed on November 20, 2016. http://www.flatpick.com/category_s/2226.htm.
7 "Doc Watson." Chet Atkins: Mister Guitar. Accessed December 06, 2016. http://www.misterguitar.us/bios/watsonbio.html.
8 Gourley, Robbin. Talkin’ Guitar: A Story of Young Doc Watson. Boston, MA: Clarion Books, 2015.
9 Fricke, David. "Memories of Doc Watson." Rolling Stone, May 30, 2012. Accessed on November 12, 2016. http://www.rollingstone.com/music/news/memories-of-doc-watson-20120530.
10 "About Merlefest." Merlefest. Accessed on November 10, 2016. http://merlefest.org/about-merlefest/.
11 Gustavson, Kent. Blind But Now I See: The Biography of Music Legend Doc Watson. New York, NY: Blooming Twig Books, 2010. pp. 95-99.
12 Ibid. 101-118.
Image Credit: Doc Watson: Just One of the People. June 24, 2011. Downtown Boone Development Assoc., Boone, NC. Accessed Nov 12, 2016. http://www.downtownboonenc.com/index.cfm/doc-watson-statue/.