Bluegrass Guitar Bluegrass Music

Happy 100th Birthday, Doc Watson!

On March 3rd, it was Doc Watson’s 100th birthday. The man left us in 2012, but his amazing legacy has remained with us since then, and with the bluegrass community having such young amazing guitarists as Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle, Doc’s influence will continue for years to come.

His story is legendary, so I’ll keep it short. You can find a biography on Doc on dozens of internet sources.. Born in 1923 in Stony Fork, North Carolina, his family was full of old-time musicians and singers. He became blind at a very early age, but still learned to handle farm chores as well as learned a number of musical instruments.

His forte, of course, was guitar. He started out professionally playing country and rockabilly guitar with a band in Johnson City, Tennessee. Folklorist Ralph Rinzler discovered him and recorded an album of Doc playing fiddle tunes on acoustic guitar for Folkways Records in 1961. It was the start of a 50-year career as a folk guitar icon.

There isn’t a bluegrass guitarist that hasn’t been influenced by Doc. Clarence White, Tony Rice, Norman Blake, Dan Crary, the list goes on. Each generation of bluegrass guitarists have no problem naming Doc as a favorite influence. Every one of them has at least one Doc Watson album. Even though he never considered himself a bluegrass guitarist, but bluegrass bands held his work in high esteem. When he toured with his son Merle, his grandson Richard, or Jack Lawrence, the duo would often headline festivals that had A-list bluegrass bands.

He loved playing with other musicians, always claiming that he continually learned form jamming with others. A beautiful moment can be found on Gather at the River: A Bluegrass Celebration. Doc jams with a young Michael Cleveland, with bluegrass musicians Tim O’Brien, Pete Wernick, and Dan Crary looking on. It is a magical moment in the bluegrass world.

There are two albums that never leave my playlist. The first is Doc Watson’s self-titled 1964 release. Raw and minimal, it is how Doc sounded best, just his voice and guitar working together. The other album is Blake & Rice 2. Doc performs on three songs with Norman and Tony that is simple wizardry.

Finally, there was the great performance called Three Pickers, in which Doc performed with Ricky Skaggs and Earl Scruggs. While each performer has a solo or band set, it is when the three of them are together that the best music is laid down. I still love watching the DVD, but here it is on YouTube.

Happy birthday, Doc! I know that you are up there making the Good Lord smile.

Chew on it and comment.


By Matt Merta/Mitch Matthews

Musician and writer (both song and print) for over 30 years. Primarily interested in roots music (Americana, bluegrass, blues, folk). Current contributing writer for Fiddler Magazine, previous work with Metro Times (Detroit), Ann Arbor Paper and Real Detroit Weekly, as well as other various music and military publications. As songwriter, won the 2015 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (Bluegrass Category, "Something About A Train," co-written with Dawn Kenney and David Morris) as well as having work performed on NPR and nominated for numerous Detroit Music Awards.

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