BLOWING ROCK — The Blowing Rock Art and History Museum held a lecture to look at Arthel “Doc” Watson’s influences, life and legacy, which was hosted by his third cousin and BRAHM Program & Outreach Director Willard Watson III.
“(Doc’s) like the greatest guitar player ever. (He had) such an amazing, rich baritone voice. I don’t go out of my way to listen to old-time, bluegrass, Americana or country music, but I do for Doc Watson,” Willard said.
Willard opened with his familial history and ties to the famous guitarist, beginning with his estranged father, who-entered his life when he turned 18. Upon telling about his acceptance to Appalachian State, Willard’s father remarked that the townsfolk would “get a kick out of you,” prompting Willard to Google his name.
Suddenly, Willard was immersed in family history and culture he had no idea he was a part of.
“When you share a name with someone you don’t like, it doesn’t really have a lot of value. But then when you find out there’s more to it, it really changed my sense of perception of who I am,” Willard said.
As chance would have it, Willard found himself related to the Appalachian legend Doc Watson.
A record from Doc and Merle Watson deciphering Doc Watson 2
deciphering Doc Watson 2
Photo by Anna De La Cruz
In the remaining two years of Doc’s life, Willard got to know him and his wife Rosa Lee, as well as create memories with the two of them. He recalled a heart-wrenching moment about how he had taken Doc to see Rosa Lee in a nursing home after she suffered from strokes that rendered her unable to speak. He said he remembered the two just sitting together, holding hands, unable to speak or see each other.
“It was really hard to see, but the love was there and shined through,” Willard said.
Willard then went on to tell the audience a bit more about Doc’s life like how he went blind at a young age from an eye infection, how the first song he ever learned was “Ramblin Hobo,” how his family came to live in the mountains after acquiring land after the American Revolution, and how he met his longtime friend and manager, Ralph Rinzler.
“In the beginning of his career, Ralph would program Doc’s sets and discourage him from playing contemporary tunes or, quote ‘anything not in the folk tradition,’” Willard said.
This would prove to work in Doc’s favor, as he became known as a folk professional with rural roots and an urban perspective, which helped make him so popular.
Willard went on to talk about how Doc played music that people of his age at the time wanted to hear, and it was through the folk music revival era did he choose to perform this style as a means to take care of his family without the need for government assistance.
Willard Watson with one of Doc Watson’s records.
Photo by Anna De La Cruz
“One of the proudest moments in Doc’s life — he would say again and again — was when he got that letter from the government saying that he made too much money to receive assistance for the blind, that he was able to provide for his wife and two children on his own hard work,” Willard said.
After showing multiple interviews, photos and artwork related to Doc, Willard showed a recording of a 2011 performance of Doc Watson at the Sugar Grove Music Festival, which would be one of his last.
“Doc was a big benefactor to people in the community. He would perform for benefits or fundraisers all the time. (If) somebody got hurt, or somebody died, or something needed to be built, he was there,” Willard recalled.
Due to the money received for his fundraising performances, the Sugar Creek Post office was saved as well as the historic Cove Creek School building.
One would think that with all he did for the community, Doc would see himself as a titan of the High Country, but he thought otherwise, Willard said.
“On his statue in downtown Boone, it’s written ‘Just one of the people,’ and that was something he said had to be done. That if they did not put that on there, he would come and tear the statue down himself because he did not want to be idolized by anyone,” Willard said.
Doc Watson died on May 29, 2012. This past March 3 would have been his 100th birthday.
“We’re so fortunate to have such a treasure of a musician from this region. To have such a person that was a good ambassador for the human race. He (was) such a kind and generous person, but then to have the greater story behind it is wonderful,” Willard said.
A previous version of this story listed Willard as Doc's great grandson, which has been corrected as Willard is his third cousin.