Editorial: He opened eyes and ears

Published 12:00 am Thursday, May 31, 2012

If not for being blind from infancy, Doc Watson sometimes told interviewers, he’d probably have become an auto mechanic — and been happy doing it.
Instead, fate and an eye infection turned his life in another direction, and the world of folk music and guitar picking would never be the same.
Arthel Lane Watson, who died Tuesday at age 89, was one of North Carolina’s and the nation’s cultural treasures, a Tar Heel native whose nimble fingers and flawless tone and timing changed the face of folk music and influenced generations of musicians who followed him. The best way to appreciate Watson, of course, is to listen to him, whether on his numerous solo recordings or those he made with other pickers and his late son, Merle, whose untimely death at age 36 devastated his father and almost caused him to end his career. You also can get a sense of Watson’s stature through the many honors he received, including eight Grammy Awards (one for lifetime achievement), a National Medal of the Arts, National Heritage Fellowship and, of course, his 2010 induction into the N.C. Music Hall of Fame in Kannapolis.
But perhaps the most powerful testimonials have come from his fellow musicians, especially those who tried to emulate his inimitable style.
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger: “He set the bar for everyone. He said, ‘This is how it goes.’ And people have been trying for years to match that.”
Mandolin player Sam Bush: “He seems to always know what notes to play. They’re always the perfect notes.”
David Holt, collaborator and sideman: “Overall, Doc will be remembered as one of America’s greatest folk musicians. I would say he’s one of America’s greatest musicians.”
Despite receiving worldwide acclaim, Doc Watson remained an humble man, one who enjoyed the simple joys of making music at his home in Deep Gap more than life on the road. “I don’t want nobody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here,” he once said. “I’m just one of the people … just me.”
Like Shelby native Earl Scruggs, who died in March, Doc Watson was a musical giant whose appeal transcended any particular genre. No doubt, he would have made a fine mechanic. But as a guitar picker, he was beyond compare and leaves behind an indelible piece of the American soundtrack.