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Folk legend Doc Watson dies at 89

WASHINGTON -- Grammy-winning U.S. folk legend Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, who branched out from his Appalachian musical roots blending in bluegrass, country, gospel and blues, died in North Carolina Tuesday, his promoters said. He was 89.

Watson, a National Medal of Arts winner who hailed from Deep Gap, North Carolina, passed away following abdominal surgery last week at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, promoters Folklore productions announced.

From a musical family, Watson grew up poor in the Blue Ridge, and picked up the banjo early — his first instrument — before moving on to the guitar.

Watson told the U.S. public radio show Fresh Air that he was just 11 when his father made him a banjo — with the skin of a dead cat.

“He brought it to me and put it in my hands, and said, 'Son, I want you to learn to play this thing real well. One of these days we'll get you a better one,' he said. 'Might help you get through the world.'”

According to family lore, at 13, he taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar. His father was delighted that he learned the chords in a day, and helped Watson buy his own guitar just days later.

Illness left Watson blind as an infant yet he was able to channel his talent and determination into musical renown; he was widely known as one of the world's most accomplished flat-pickers.

Musician David Holt, who played with Watson for years, told National Public Radio that the special determination of a blind, self-made man was clear to hear in his work.

“Doc was fierce, but not fierce in a bad way — just fierce in a determined way,” Holt said.

His opening in the musical world was aided by the growing folk revival. In 1960 folklorists Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle heard Watson in the process. That led to his first recordings, “Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley's.”

It was 1962 when Watson gave his first solo performance at Gerde's Folk City in New York's Greenwich Village. So began his busy professional career including concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals such as the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.

As recently as 2002, Watson — who recorded dozens of albums — took home one of his eight Grammys, when he joined forces with banjo player David Holt. The pair shared the Grammy for their album “Legacy.”

Former U.S. President Bill Clinton said, when awarding him the National Medal of Arts: “There may not be a serious, committed baby boomer alive who didn't at some point in his or her youth try to spend a few minutes at least trying to learn to pick a guitar like Doc Watson.”

The performer is survived by Rosa Lee Carlton Watson, his wife of nearly sixty-six years, their daughter Nancy Ellen, grandchildren, great-grandchildren, and his brother David Watson.

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Bob Dylan among Medal of Freedom 'heroes'
In this May 1, 2005 file photo, master banjo picker and folk music legend Doc Watson plays during the “My Friend Merle” show during MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. (AP)

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