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Legendary Doc Watson dies at 89

By Anna Oakes (

Article Published: May. 29, 2012 | Modified: May. 30, 2012
Legendary Doc Watson dies at 89

Photo by Peter Figen

Arthel Lane "Doc" Watson, an eight-time Grammy Award winner, National Medal of Arts honoree and recipient of the National Heritage Fellowship, died Tuesday, May 29, at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem at the age of 89.

Watson was born in Deep Gap on March 3, 1923, and was a lifetime resident of the small Watauga County community.

Watson's manager, Mitch Greenhill, reported shortly after noon Tuesday that Watson's condition had "somewhat deteriorated this morning." Watson had been in critical condition at Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem since undergoing colon surgery Thursday and a follow-up procedure Friday.

After what was described as an encouraging response to Thursday's surgery, Watson condition has fluctuated since then, according to regular updates from Greenhill.

On Sunday, described as one of Watson's more difficult days, Greenhill advised, “The family, while understanding and appreciating interest from Doc's friends and well-wishers, would appreciate privacy during this trying time.”

Watson fell at home early last week, Greenhill said, and was taken to Watauga Medical Center in Boone, from which he was transported by ambulance to Winston-Salem.

“They found a blockage in his colon, which they removed,” said Greenhill.

Watson's flat-picking and finger-picking styles have influenced many a guitarist, and his soulful vocal renderings of blues, country, gospel and folk tunes have introduced countless people across the world to the music of Appalachia.

His late son, Merle Watson, was a skilled guitar and banjo picker in his own right, and father and son toured the nation together. After Merle died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985, the Merle Watson Memorial Festival (now MerleFest) was first held in his honor in 1988. Today, the festival held in Wilkesboro is one of the premier traditional, bluegrass and Americana music festivals in the world.

Watson is survived by his wife of nearly 66 years, Rosa Lee Carlton Watson, their daughter Nancy Ellen, as well as his grandchildren Richard Watson and Karen Watson Norris, several great-grandchildren and his brother David Watson.

Private funeral arrangements are pending.

Since late last week, well-wishers have placed bouquets of flowers around a bronze Doc Watson sculpture in downtown Boone, which was installed last June in conjunction with a Jones House Community Center performance by Watson and his friends.

Although Watson was not a prolific songwriter, he and Rosa Lee co-wrote "Your Long Journey," which was featured on the Grammy-winning album "Raising Sand" by Robert Plant and Alison Krauss.

The first stanzas of the song begin:

"God's given us years of happiness here
Now we must part
And as the angels come and call for you
The pains of grief tug at my heart

Oh my darling
Oh my darling
My heart breaks as you take your long journey."

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