Arthel Lane“Doc” Watson was born in 1923 in North Carolina, where he grew up listening to the sounds of rootsy country musicians such as the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, the Monroe Brothers and the Delmore Brothers. As a boy, he was bought a harmonica every Christmas and his father made him a fretless banjo. After hearing a cousin’s guitar at school, he bought his first $10 instrument with money made from chopping wood and began learning to play tunes he heard on the Grand Ole Opry. By the time he was 20 he was proficient on acoustic and electric guitar. He joined a local group that was without a fiddle player, prompting him to begin to replicate some fiddle parts on his guitar. Widening his playing style to include dance and more pop-based songs, Doc made his first solo performance at Gerde’s Folk City in New Yorkin 1962, beginning many years of travelling to festivals, radio shows and concerts.
In 1963 Doc played the highly influential Newport Folk Festival for the first time. He cut his debut album the following year for Vanguard, whose output included many releases linked to the festival. To say that the record became highly influential is somewhat an understatement, as it was as remarkable a debut as Buffy Sainte-Marie’s first album. Doc’s flat-picking and finger-picking guitar playing styles influenced players such as Clarence White of the Kentucky Colonels, whose bluegrass album “Long Journey Home” also appeared on Vanguard. Doc and Clarence combined their playing at an afternoon workshop at the 1964 Newport Festival, and Clarence ended by taking his talents to a later line-up of the Byrds. Also notable on the album is Doc’s confident and attractive singing, as evidenced on his version of ‘Tom Dooley’, which tells the story of a murder committed a few miles from his family home in 1866. Further local songs include ‘Georgia Buck’ and ‘Omie Wise’, the latter aNorth Carolina ballad that became a key American folk song. Other songs he probably learnt from the radio were ‘The Intoxicated Rat’ from the Dixon Brothers and the Delmore Brothers’ ‘The Nashville Blues’. With other songs and tunes Doc wrote or re-arranged from earlier sources, the album was both locally based and far-reaching, presenting his guitar playing on mountain country material at a time when folk music was reaching a wider and younger audience.