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RIP, Doc Watson
May 29, 2012 6:37 PM   Subscribe

Iconic bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson has died in a Winston-Salem, NC hospital. Arthel "Doc" Watson, 89 years old at the time of his death, was one of the greatest traditional, folk and bluegrass guitarists in history. He is credited with popularizing the flatpicking style of guitar, and his involvement with the concerts in New York City, Boston and Newport helped popularize traditional mountain music and bluegrass during the 1960s.

A life-long resident of Deep Gap, North Carolina, Watson lost his eyesight before his first birthday. His son Merle, died on the family farm in a tractor accident in 1985. Rather than retreat from society, Watson embraced it even more fully, creating Merlefest, one of the first multi-day destination concerts. Watson played at one time or another with every great bluegrass or traditional mountain music star you can think of. Here's an interview published in American Songwriter magazine.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare (106 comments total) 19 users marked this as a favorite

 
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posted by Grumpy old geek at 6:42 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by sonic meat machine at 6:46 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by Badmichelle at 6:48 PM on May 29, 2012


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I'm glad my Dad introduced me to Doc. To this day, "Deep River Blues" is one of my favorites.
posted by Cash4Lead at 6:48 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by middleclasstool at 6:50 PM on May 29, 2012


. . . . .

Because one isn't enough for Doc Watson. Thank you.
posted by Miko at 6:51 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Doc Watson played a show at UNCP when I was a student there, and I went with my mother and grandmother. I had never heard him play before, but I was charmed, and it was a lovely night. He was really a musician for the ages.

My grandmother is in a nursing facility with vascular dementia now. She can't remember exactly who we are anymore, but she knows that she knows and likes us. I've have been planning to bring her some of her favorite music to listen to, and Doc Watson is high on the list of music I need to acquire. Hopefully, it will ring a bell in her head, even if just a little bit.
posted by Coatlicue at 6:52 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


Doc and Merle Watson: The train that carried my girl from town
posted by shothotbot at 6:52 PM on May 29, 2012


He was one of the greats. I was fortunate to see Watson play live back in November 2010 thanks to a friend and fellow Mefite. He's one of those folks that just made me feel better knowing he was around.

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posted by marxchivist at 6:54 PM on May 29, 2012


...laughing just to keep from crying. For anyone interested there are some incredible (and legal) Doc Watson soundboard recordings on etree. This is a good one.
posted by Lorin at 6:54 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Aw, hell.

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posted by Sing Or Swim at 6:54 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by hippybear at 6:59 PM on May 29, 2012


A picker's picker. Thanks Doc.

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posted by spitbull at 6:59 PM on May 29, 2012


As much as I bitch about being a lifelong Virginian, my life has been full of great music. A few days ago I was writing here on the blue about the many times I got to see Danny Gatton and Roy Buchanan. Well, I was also lucky enough to see Doc (and Merle) numerous times. He was one those musicians who didn't just play music, he was music.

I hope Doc and Merle are picking together again tonight.
posted by Benny Andajetz at 6:59 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


"I have seen the David/I've seen the Mona Lisa, too/I have heard Doc Watson play/ 'Columbus Stockade Blues.'"
-Guy Clark
posted by Rangeboy at 7:00 PM on May 29, 2012 [4 favorites]


Another great one falls. RIP, Doc.
posted by jonmc at 7:01 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by eriko at 7:01 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by sister nunchaku of love and mercy at 7:01 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by schyler523 at 7:04 PM on May 29, 2012


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Saw him a year and a half ago with David Holt (hey, marxchivist) when he was clearly ailing but still a treasure; I forget which song about not fearing death he did towards the end, but I remember being blown away by his certainty that dying was gonna be just fine, thank you very much.

Can't think of a better way to mark the man's passing than to believe him on that one.
posted by mediareport at 7:07 PM on May 29, 2012


(And David Holt deserves a medal from music fans the world over for what he did for Doc during those last years; I don't think there's any way Doc would have been able to keep performing without Holt's essential help, both musical and otherwise. His site's busy at the moment, but I'm sure Holt will have something to say worth reading and there's interesting stuff there (including lots of videos, which you can see listed on that archive.org page.)
posted by mediareport at 7:07 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Doc Watson's recordings are among my favorites. I know what I am listening to tonight.
posted by bukvich at 7:08 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by jquinby at 7:08 PM on May 29, 2012


I remember seeing him with his son Merle several times during the 70s at the Boarding House in San Francisco. He played so well and so effortlessly that it was possible to believe you must be able to play too. That's how good he was.
posted by cccorlew at 7:10 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


This is a terrible year for bluegrass.
posted by Catblack at 7:11 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by LobsterMitten at 7:11 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by drlith at 7:12 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by Ironmouth at 7:13 PM on May 29, 2012


I just sang my kids to sleep with "Shady Grove" before reading this.
posted by michaelh at 7:22 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by The White Hat at 7:26 PM on May 29, 2012


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Searching around YouTube, I found this. I got about 45 seconds in before I got the sniffles.
posted by octothorpe at 7:26 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Saw him with Sam Bush at Bonnaroo in 2004 (I think, it's all a little hazy...). To say I was equal parts blown away and inspired doesn't do that performance justice.

I knew several people who went out of their way to speak to him at Merlefest, and all said he was a genuine, kind man, always willing to talk to anyone, and answer any question.

Here's hoping his spirit is truly settin' on top of the world with Merle tonight.
posted by 1f2frfbf at 7:26 PM on May 29, 2012


I first heard Doc with Bill Monroe on their Folkways duet album. I still listen to it all the time. I love the bass lines in his guitar parts so much.

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posted by bgribble at 7:28 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by strixus at 7:29 PM on May 29, 2012


I have seen the David
I've seen the Mona Lisa too
And I have heard Doc Watson
Play Columbus Stockade Blues


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posted by Kandarp Von Bontee at 7:31 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by saulgoodman at 7:33 PM on May 29, 2012


I found Doc Watson, along with a few dozen other musicians, when my Dad handed me Will The Circle Be Unbroken after I asked him why music was so important to him.

I cannot think of a more compelling answer.
posted by eriko at 7:37 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Doc was a national treasure, an extraordinary link to a rich history of nearly forgotten American tradition. He is irreplaceable.

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posted by gnutron at 7:38 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


And am I born to die,
To lay this body down?
And must my trembling spirit fly
Into a world unknown?

posted by The White Hat at 7:41 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


I saw him once. What was amazing to watch, as a guitarist, was his left hand. All these notes were coming out of his guitar, whether he was fingerpicking or flatpicking, and his left hand just looked like it was in a perpetual C chord, up and down the neck. Such economy, I have never seen before or since.

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posted by Danf at 7:41 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


I had the good fortune to see Doc Watson a number of times, and I'll never forget it. I just learned of his death via text from my dad, who first introduced me to Doc and bluegrass. I'm a little teary right now.

Three of my favorites:
Creole Belle
Shady Grove
Big Sandy

His life and his talent were truly a gift to the world. Awwww, pick it, Doc.

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posted by fiercecupcake at 7:43 PM on May 29, 2012


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Saw him with Merle, saw him without Merle. So sad for him ever since Merle died. His music changed me and so did he. RIP
posted by Infinity_8 at 7:43 PM on May 29, 2012











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I've got them deep river blues.
posted by Mental Wimp at 7:48 PM on May 29, 2012


Aw.
posted by chococat at 7:49 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by St. Alia of the Bunnies at 7:49 PM on May 29, 2012


Oh, how very sad. Asheville will be down for a while. I'll definitely be at the next Merlefest.

Thanks, Doc.

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posted by lazaruslong at 7:51 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by pknodle at 7:51 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by lester's sock puppet at 7:52 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by bjgeiger at 7:53 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by rahnefan at 7:55 PM on May 29, 2012


At Merlefest around '97 or so, sitting around the campfire late one night playing drunken guitars and drinking moonshine, when a couple of figures stepped out of the trees and into the firelight, one guiding the other by the arm. Sure, Doc, you can sit and sing with us a bit. What a sweet, genuine guy. Was sorry to see him eventually ramble off into the dark that night, and sorry all over again to see him do it again tonight.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 7:56 PM on May 29, 2012 [11 favorites]


Sure, Doc, you can sit and sing with us a bit.

Sure, God Almighty, I'd *love* to hear a story!

Wow.
posted by eriko at 8:01 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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Doc's version of Shady Grove is one of my all time favorite tunes.
posted by unSane at 8:03 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


One of my favorite recordings is his 1963 album with Jean Ritchie.
posted by Creosote at 8:05 PM on May 29, 2012


I was sorry to see this news. His music was amazing. I am pretty sure I was brought along to see him play when I was a very, very small child, but never had a chance to see him as an adult.
posted by Forktine at 8:05 PM on May 29, 2012


And by a little babbling brook, once more we'll wander
And in a shady nook, we'll dream the hours away
And I will leave all my cares behind
Go where I know I'll find sunshine
Back to that little old green valley far away
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posted by RakDaddy at 8:08 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


So, I had to go back to listen. And here's what Doc said.

"Do we want to try a break? Now, now your fiddle break comes right after I get back and whup her brother and her pa and sing a chorus. (giggles)"

(In the background after that...."meanwhile, back at the ranch....")

God, so brilliant. I'm honored to have heard him.
posted by eriko at 8:13 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by vverse23 at 8:13 PM on May 29, 2012


Yauch, Chuck Brown, Donna Summer, and now Doc Watson. the May the music died.
posted by Challahtronix at 8:19 PM on May 29, 2012


Deep Gap is in the next holler over from where I went to college, and in one of the early meetings of a program I was involved with, they showed a documentary about Doc. Now, bluegrass music was just about the only music my biological father ever listened to, and I'd internalized a dislike of it along with all the frustration he'd caused me. That doc on Doc, and the rewards I gained from introducing myself to bluegrass and traditional music from then on, helped me to get past my dislike and come to love the music. I feel that I owe my decent (albeit digital) collection of bluegrass in large part to him. I'm so glad that I was able to see him perform at a small festival in Sugar Grove just a couple of years ago.
posted by Shotgun Shakespeare at 8:21 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


That most American of musicians, one of this country's true national treasures, and well deserving of his National Medal of the Arts awarded by President Clinton. RIP, Doc. I've always felt good that in my 40s, when I got my first credit card, the first thing I ever charged was tickets to see Doc Watson.

I found Doc Watson, along with a few dozen other musicians, when my Dad handed me Will The Circle Be Unbroken after I asked him why music was so important to him.

Certainly one of my “10 Records to Take to a Desert Island,” a truly magnificent triple album for many reasons, not least among them the initial meeting between Doc and Merle Travis, his son's namesake. The recording is 40 years old this year, and still great.
posted by LeLiLo at 8:22 PM on May 29, 2012


Yauch, Chuck Brown, Donna Summer, and now Doc Watson. the May the music died.

And, sadly, Levon.
posted by Mental Wimp at 8:29 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by dougzilla at 8:33 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by mcrandello at 8:37 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by jabo at 8:45 PM on May 29, 2012


Lorin: "...laughing just to keep from crying . For anyone interested there are some incredible (and legal) Doc Watson soundboard recordings on etree. This is a good one."

Got any other recommendations? I somehow missed out on Doc.
posted by notsnot at 8:52 PM on May 29, 2012



posted by not_on_display at 8:54 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by mwhybark at 9:06 PM on May 29, 2012


Thanks, Doc for bringing me so much joy over the years.

Rest in peace.
posted by special-k at 9:10 PM on May 29, 2012


Truly one of the best of all time. Doc was a household name and his records were playing more or less constantly as I grew up, thanks to my fingerpickin' dad. He loves to crow about the time he got to jam a little backstage with Merle; as Dad took the lead, Doc raised his head up and said "THAT'S how you play it, boy!" If looks could kill, etc.

Last time I visited family, it was the first time I was able to (baaaarely) keep up with Dad's guitar chops, and of course the first thing we did was totally rock some Doc on twin Martin D-28s. Looked up and saw him grinning ear to ear, tears on his face, and I just lost it too. Gotta call him and (potentially) break the news.

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posted by jake at 9:15 PM on May 29, 2012 [3 favorites]


Sigh. Here's another of the most treasured musicians in the world, silent now. Damn, I'll miss him.

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posted by drhydro at 9:18 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by dbiedny at 9:34 PM on May 29, 2012


Got any other recommendations? I somehow missed out on Doc.

Check out this one from 2001. Doc's voice is nice and clear, a fun setlist (Knights in White Satin cover!) and great playing from Jack Lawrence.

My personal favourite Doc studio albums are The Elementary Doc Watson! and Memories.
posted by Lorin at 9:35 PM on May 29, 2012


Aside from his masterful guitar playing, one thing I've always loved about Doc Watson is his voice: a more honest, direct, no-frills, unaffected voice you won't find. I've never tired of hearing it and basking in its glorious humbleness.

Here's a post I made on Doc back in 2008: The Great Doc Watson.

Here's an NPR feature.

Got any other recommendations? I somehow missed out on Doc.

I love his version of Omie Wise. And love love love his St. James Hospital.

RIP, Doc Watson.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:50 PM on May 29, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by mule98J at 10:08 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by SenorJaime at 10:09 PM on May 29, 2012


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posted by Token Meme at 10:18 PM on May 29, 2012


One thing worth pointing out is that he was mining a vein of music that went much deeper and older than bluegrass, resurrecting songs (starting in the early 60s, on brilliant albums like this one) that were not part of the bluegrass repertoire, which was much more modern. This article from 1999, "Don't Call It Bluegrass," quotes Doc, perhaps overstating things a bit (but perhaps not), saying the following:

"I have been asked by many reporters and journalists, 'What do you term your music?' I call it 'traditional plus whatever we want to play.' It's not bluegrass, that's for sure. I did one bluegrass album out of the 30-odd that I've got."

I wouldn't argue too much with the "iconic bluegrass guitarist" thing, but it's not the description he would have used himself. "Folk music guitarist" fits better.
posted by mediareport at 10:22 PM on May 29, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by blob at 10:24 PM on May 29, 2012


Oh please say it isn't so. Thanks for all the great tunes, Doc and friends. Sniff.

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posted by Lynsey at 11:13 PM on May 29, 2012


♫ ♪ ♪♫ ♪ ♪

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posted by Katjusa Roquette at 11:29 PM on May 29, 2012


This guy made a very big mark on me. Proper legend.

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posted by Cogentesque at 2:15 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by RussHy at 3:26 AM on May 30, 2012


Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs.

If you have not checked out the Smithsonian Folkways recording "The Watson Family", please do. It's incredible, a picture of mountain music that emphasizes its timelessness. Hearing those songs, you can easily imagine the same sentiments expressed in different languages back through the years, for as long as there were humans sitting around a fire and singing.
posted by dubold at 3:37 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by trip and a half at 4:00 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by Thorzdad at 4:36 AM on May 30, 2012


I was a snot-nosed teen with no interest in folk music, but would do anything to be with my big brother, so I went to the Philadelphia Folk Fest to "camp" with him for the weekend. The music was a little better than I thought it would be, but then Doc took the stage and it was a transforming event. Doc opened up a whole new world of music for me and for that, I thank him (and my brother). This little video of Doc sitting and playing in a guitar shop is one of my favorites. Just him, a guitar, and a song.
posted by qldaddy at 4:43 AM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


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posted by word_virus at 5:08 AM on May 30, 2012


Dang, it's been a tough year for pickers; first Earl, now Doc. I love the clip of them that duboid posted. My favorite part is when Earl says they should play something they can take some breaks on, Doc says, "I don't know if Randy [Earl's son] can play guitar breaks on Cripple Creek, but I can." And then proceeds to light it up. I've heard him talk like that before. He says something that sounds kind of braggy at first, but then what he plays is so freakin good, he ends up coming off as fairly humble.
posted by lost_cause at 6:03 AM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


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posted by Foosnark at 6:25 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by spielzebub at 6:39 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by Shoggoth at 6:47 AM on May 30, 2012


Oh, no.

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posted by shakespeherian at 6:50 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by Atreides at 7:09 AM on May 30, 2012


I grew up hearing Doc's music - recorded and live - and last night was surprised how non-emotional I was. I knew he wasn't doing so well the last few years, and had been in the hospital since he fell last week. I think part of it was knowing how prepared Doc himself was for it, and had been for so long. I've heard him talk about how he'd been given more than a man deserved, and thinking 'that's true humility'. I went to the Louisville festival in '87 or so with my Dad and Stepmom. I had a full cast on my leg, and several folks made comments about 'forcing' me to be there, and all I could say is I wanted to be. My dad got me up close to the stage after one of Doc's sets, and he spoke to us for a moment or two - Jack Lawrence was walking Doc offstage, and mentioned to him that I was on crutches with a bum leg. Doc just laughed and said 'I guess we both needed help to get here'. I laughed with him, and thought how cool it was that he was so at peace with the world. Plus, the man could make anything swing. One of his sets at that festival he played and played, and then started offstage - people didn't want to see him go. Doc was led back, no guitar, just his harmonica - and played Dixie. The pure joy and emotion he put into playing - it was like watching a master paint or Jordan shoot hoops in your backyard - it looked so easy, and so amazing. I can still see him standing there, people on their feet applauding, and just shyly smiling like he was embarrassed by all the attention...

I put on Doc in the car on the way to the Gym this morning, and the tears came, but it wasn't sad. Doc put so much good into the world with just his hands and voice, I'm grateful to be able to feel that, just by playing his music.
posted by pupdog at 8:38 AM on May 30, 2012 [2 favorites]


We were lucky to hear such good music. Thanks, Doc.

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posted by zaelic at 8:56 AM on May 30, 2012


When I was little I wanted to grow up to be an astronaut. I changed my mind about ten years ago and decided I wanted to be Doc Watson.

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posted by ElGuapo at 9:00 AM on May 30, 2012


     
     
     

posted by y2karl at 9:06 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by Lutoslawski at 9:33 AM on May 30, 2012


I was lucky to see him twice, once in Madison and once in Rockford. I agree with the comments about his beautiful voice. I can't think of a better one. (Or a better song than his version of Shady Grove.) May he rest in peace and his family be comforted in their loss.

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posted by katyh at 10:06 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by OmieWise at 10:36 AM on May 30, 2012


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posted by steambadger at 10:47 AM on May 30, 2012


My Dad died last month. His two favorite musicians were Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson.

I hope he is somewhere singing bluegrass with them both today.
posted by jefficator at 12:31 PM on May 30, 2012 [1 favorite]


Doc Watson was the first concert I remember going to. I was 6. Thanks to my parents for that, and thanks to Doc for everything.
posted by hydropsyche at 1:44 PM on May 30, 2012


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posted by andromache at 2:05 PM on May 30, 2012



posted by Smart Dalek at 4:00 PM on May 30, 2012


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