southern Appalachian Mountains. But since 1960, Watson has become a walking museum of songs and styles from the earliest days of Anglo-American folk song. Part of his fame is due to his ability to adapt with the times without submitting to compromising his style or his sensibilities. A good example is his 1995 Sugar Hill CD, “Docabilly,” in which Watson adapts his flatpicking guitar to rockabilly classics such as “Shake, Rattle & Roll” and “Bird Dog.” Recognizing the fact that no music exists today in a vacuum, Doc Watson has allowed himself to be influenced by the changing musical landscape, much as Chet Atkins did, with each influence enhancing rather than detracting from his own personal style.
Arthel “Doc” Watson was born on March 23, 1923 in Stoney Fork, North Carolina. When he was an infant, he was blinded by an eye disease. As with many similarly afflicted people, this only sharpened his keen ear, and Doc showed a musical aptitude at an early age. The Watson household always seemed to have music playing. Doc’s father, General Dixon Watson, played banjo and jaw harp and was also a song leader in church. When Doc was six or seven, his father acquired a phonograph and a supply of hillbilly 78s. Doc was exposed to records in both black and white tradition, favoring records by Jimmie Rodgers, The Carter Family, Mississippi John Hurt, Frank Hutchison, the Delmore Brothers, and Buell Kazee, among others. The exposure to commercial phonograph records only enhanced Doc’s sense of Appalachian folk song tradition; he would apply this sound to the new ones he heard on 78s.
Doc’s first instrument was a homemade fretless banjo with a head made from the hide of his grandmother’s old cat. At thirteen, he got his first guitar, a Stella his father purchased for twelve dollars. His performing began a few years later when he teamed up with his brother Linny as a duo. In 1940, he acquired a Martin D-28 and started singing on the streets of Lenore, South Carolina. He also played occasional fiddlers’ conventions and contests. When he married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947, he found a mentor of inestimable influence, Rosa Lee’s father, Gaither Carlton. An accomplished old-time fiddler, Carlton introduced Doc to many traditional mountain tunes and folk songs that helped Doc expand his repertoire even further.