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The Appalachian

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A legend leaves Watauga: Doc Watson dies at 89

The world learned about the death of a Watauga County man Tuesday night. The news spread through a variety of media outlets, including the Associated Press, The Los Angeles Times, PBS Newshour, The Huffington Post and E! Online. 

That man was Doc Watson, an 89-year-old folk musician and eight-time Grammy winner who’d lived in Deep Gap since he was born.

Watson was hospitalized last week after falling at home, and underwent colon surgery Thursday and a follow-up procedure Friday, Watauga Democrat reported. The musician’s condition deteriorated throughout the week, and he died Tuesday at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, The News & Observer reported.

Watson, who was blind from birth, started building his musical career in his 40s, according to the LA Times‘ obituary. He started out in a dance band playing electric guitar, but had embarked on a solo career by the 1960s. 

In 1988, Watson founded Merlefest — then called the Merle Watson Memorial Festival — in honor of his son Merle, who was killed in a tractor incident three years before.

Today, Merlefest is one of the largest folk festivals in the world and drew more than 90 acts to the Wilkes Community College campus this April. 

Punch Brothers guitarist Chris Elridge, whose band played Merlefest this year, told The Appalachian in April that he had “a long, abiding love for Doc and the area.” 

“It’s great to be part of the legacy of such a diverse and well-loved festival…it feels good to contribute to the well-being of both,” Elridge said.

Watson continued to play Merlefest throughout his life, including a set at the April festival. He also played a concert in October 2011 to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Appalachian State University’s Goodnight Family Sustainable Development Program.

Despite starting his career late in life, Watson was a definitive folk musician who made an impact around the world.

“Doc Watson sort of defined in many ways what Americana has become,” Jed Hilly, executive director of the Americana Music Association, told the LA 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…nothing is more definitive than Doc Watson’s appreciation for a broad spectrum of music in the Americana world.” 

Watson was also remembered fondly on the streets of Boone, where he once played music. A bronze statue of the musician, dedicated last year, rests at the corner of King and Depot streets. 

“He grew up playing across on one side of the street for pennies and now people take pictures with a statue of him every day,” Willard Watson told The Appalachian in October.

A plaque on the bench reads “Doc Watson — Just one of the people.” 

The inscription was Watson’s request.

Check back Wednesday for a story on student reactions, and visit our Twitter and Facebook to share your memories of Doc. 

Story: MEGHAN FRICK, Social Media Manager

 


Read Governor Bev Perdue’s statement on Doc Watson’s death: 

“Over his long and brilliant career, Doc Watson traveled the world playing the music he loved, but his heart never strayed far from his home in Deep Gap, North Carolina. His peerless abilities garnered him countless awards, including North Carolina’s highest civilian honor, the North Carolina Award, in 1986, and the North Carolina Heritage Award in 1994. Our state was fortunate to have such a worldwide ambassador of North Carolina’s culture and heritage. He will be missed.”

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