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Music Legend Doc Watson Dead At 89

Doc Watson
Sugar Hill Records
Doc Watson

Musician Doc Watson died on Tuesday. The 89 year old guitarist from Deep Gap, North Carolina, had been in a Winston-Salem hospital recovering from a fall and other ailments. Watson was an iconic North Carolina musician, he broke new ground in bluegrass, country and gospel. His legacy has fueled a generation of musicians.

Doc Watson: In the summer of 1934, papa made my first musical instrument, a little five string fretless banjo and he played me a tune on it.

David Brower: While Doc Watson’s father built his first instrument, guitar maker Wayne Henderson built his last. Henderson is a renowned luthier who lives just north of Doc's place in Deep Gap. The two have been friends for almost 50 years.

Wayne Henderson: I think the first time I can remember meeting Doc Watson and I was in Gerald Little’s Music Store in Boone North Carolina back in the 60s I knew who Doc was and was amazed by his playing and he instantly became a hero of mine. And I was just setting in that store fingerpicking cannonball blues and I noticed that this voice came in behind me, started singing it, and I looked around and saw that it was Doc Watson in person standing there singing it along with me and I almost dropped my guitar.

Doc Watson is in the back of the head of many American guitar players. His sound is iconic and set the standard for acoustic players that wanted to take traditional music one step further. Barry Poss is the founder of Sugar Hill Records.

Barry Poss: Each note is like a pearl, gorgeous and fully formed and then you add to that his impeccable taste in what he chooses to play, and then perfect timing in playing it.

Guitarist Wayne Henderson sat knee to knee with Doc Watson for decades and says he's still trying to find some of that sound.

Wayne Henderson: He had such tasteful licks they were plenty hot and fancy enough but maybe not quite as much as some of the modern players. But still nothing never better. Just because you could really understand what he was playing, but even though you could do that you still couldn’t understand how to do it. But there’s just so much soul and attention to melody that just stood him out from everyone else.

Henderson is proud to have built the guitar Doc played in the last few years of his life. The instrument was the result of dozens of visits Doc made to Henderson’s shop over the years. The two of them would sit around and talk and play music like neighbors do. The weather, family, music, work and stories from childhood always came up.

Wayne Henderson: He cut and sawed wood, and he said that’s something he always appreciated his dad doing is putting him on the end of a cross cut saw, instead of making him sit over in a corner being a blind kid you know not doing something, he said his dad put him to work.

Doc Watson grew up one of 9 children on the family farm in Deep Gap North Carolina. While he made his living as a musician, Henderson says Doc always admired craftsmen and respected the hard work that went into keeping the family farm going.

Wayne Henderson: He said ‘I would have been a carpenter, an electrician or something, that stuff is what I like to do. Wish if I’d been able to see that’s what I probably would have been doing I might not have ever played the guitar’ I’ve heard him say that.

But Doc did learn to play guitar and supported his wife Rosalee and their two children as a professional musician. He and his son Merle toured together until Merle died in 1985 in a tractor accident. The now legendary mountain folk festival Merlefest is named in Merle’s honor. Doc, and all of his ensembles, put out more than 50-records over the years. Barry Poss released some of the best on his Sugar Hill label.

Barry Poss: Doc stood for everything I wanted Sugar Hill to be about, I mean I had some goals and some notions and to me Doc stood for excellence, he stood for passion and he stood for integrity and that's exactly what I wanted the label to be about and so in a very real direct way working with him kept me honest, kept me committed to those ideals.

Doc Watson won nearly every award you could imagine. There’s the 7 Grammys, the North Carolina Award, the State Folk Heritage Award and in 1997, President Clinton awarded Doc the National Medal of the Arts. Despite all the accolades, those who knew him say Doc was as humble as they came. On stage he was a commanding presence but quick to deflect attention. You can hear it in the way he lead a band. Doc was always at the center but he knew just when to bring in others or call on one of his sidemen for a solo.

The music of Doc Watson will endure. There are the recordings and scores of videos documenting the work. But those who knew him like Barry Poss and Wayne Henderson say they'll miss the man.

Barry Poss: I loved knowing Doc Watson he was always very kind to me, I mean the world knows Doc as this superb guitarist, which he is, and that influence will go on through the countless guitarists he's influenced, i mean you'd be hard pressed to name a guitarist that wasn't influenced by Doc. From a different vantage point, from knowing him personally for 30 years, I would like to add to this larger than life musical legacy just a portrait of Doc as a hugely, hugely decent and honorable man.

Doc Watson is survived by his daughter, a brother two grandchildren, seven great grand children and Rosalee , his wife of 65 years the two of them wrote this song together, it's called "Your Long Journey."

Doc Watson was scheduled to play one last major concert with friends on June 30th at the North Carolina Museum of Art in Raleigh. Organizers say the concert and day-long symposium about Watson’s legacy will go on with Doc Watson there in spirit.

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