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Doc Watson was born Arthel L. Watson in Deep Gap, N.C., into a family already rich in musical tradition. His mother, Annie Watson, sang traditional secular and religious songs, and his father, General Watson, played the banjo, which became Watson’s first instrument.
Now at the age of 88, Watson has been performing practically his whole life.
The Down Home in Johnson City will host two shows with the legendary Watson at 7:30 p.m., and 10 p.m., Saturday. Doors open at 5 p.m. Advance tickets are $24 per show.
When he was just 13, Watson taught himself the chords to “When the Roses Bloom in Dixieland” on a borrowed guitar, and his delighted father bought him a $12 Stella.
He later picked up some chords from a fellow student at The Governor Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, N.C., and began to incorporate material he heard on records and the radio with the music of his heritage.
Back home, he played mostly with neighbors and family, among them fiddler Gaither Carlton, who became his father-in-law when Watson married Rosa Lee Carlton in 1947. They became the parents of two children, Merle and Nancy Ellen.
But it wasn’t until 1953 at the age of 30 that he met Jack Williams, a local piano player, and began to play gigs for money. Watson played with Williams’ rockabilly/swing band for seven years, a period and a style that he revisited in the recent album “Docabilly.”
He continued to play traditional music with his family and with his banjo-playing neighbor, Clarence “Tom” Ashley.
In 1960, spurred by the growing folk revival, Ralph Rinzler and Eugene Earle came south to record Ashley and heard Watson in the process.
These sessions resulted in Watson’s first recordings, “Old-Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s.” A later recording, a collaboration with mandolinist David Grisman, “Doc & Dawg,” returns to this old-time pre-bluegrass style.
In 1961, the Friends of Old-Time Music invited Watson, Ashley, Clint Howard and Fred Price to perform at a now-legendary concert in New York City, and one year later Watson gave his first solo performance at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village.
From then on, he was a full-time professional, playing a wide range of concerts, clubs, colleges and festivals, including the Newport Folk Festival and Carnegie Hall.
As the late 1960s brought a waning of the folk revival, Watson’s son, Merle Watson, provided the musical and emotional companionship that he needed to continue touring.
With Merle Watson playing guitar and banjo and serving as partner and driver, the father-son team expanded their audience nationwide.
After working for a while with the band Frosty Morn, they continued to tour with bassist T.Michael Coleman, and took their music to Europe, Japan and Africa. A series of remarkable recordings, including collaborations with Flatt & Scruggs, Chet Atkins and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, helped make Watson the gold standard among traditional pickers.
Although he briefly stopped performing after Merle Watson died in a 1985 tractor accident, Watson, accompanied by guitarist Jack Lawrence, now accepts a limited number of engagements.
For the last several years, Watson has hosted the annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., where, surrounded by family and collaborators ranging from bandleader Jack Williams to grandson Richard Watson, he can give full breadth to his musical expression and still sleep in his own house, deep in the Carolina mountains, on land homesteaded by his g r e a t - g r e a t - g r a n d f a t h e r.
For more information, call the Down Home at (423) 929-9822 or visit www.downhome.com .