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March 2, 2023 14 minute READ

Doc Watson: Sittin' on Top of the World

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Few performers achieve a status where their music is synonymous with the place they call home. Dolly Parton would be such an icon of Tennessee, for instance. Likewise, no one evokes the image of “moonlight through the pines” in Georgia more than Ray Charles or the ancient tones of Kentucky’s bluegrass hills like Bill Monroe. Arguably no one person is as associated with the sound of the North Carolina mountains, perhaps even the entire state of North Carolina, as Doc Watson. As we celebrate what would have been Watson’s 100th birthday on March 3, we’ll look at the lasting legacy of Doc and cover how generations of musicians and music lovers influenced and inspired by his sound are honoring the man as eternal as the Carolina mountains with a host of events and an outpouring of memories.


Doc was first and foremost a storyteller in the way of old folktales. He interpreted stories that existed long before he did in his own manner.

These stories lived in songs that had been passed down for generations. They told of the land, families, love and lovers, heartbreak, spirituality, death, murder, or, as is often the case in traditional folk music, a combination of several or all of those themes wrapped in one song.

With a soulful voice whose rich, mellow baritone never faltered or broke regardless of the song’s subject matter, Doc sang the stories of his mountain home in Deep Gap, North Carolina, in his own unique way. Accompanied by his virtuosic flat-picking guitar style, the occasional series of percussive taps, thumps, and slaps to the body of his instrument, or a harmonica (or sometimes the homemade banjo on which he learned how to play music as a small child without the sense of sight), Doc created a style all his own.  

Doc Watson muralFlat-picking, by the way, could be described as using a pick rather than one’s fingers to play individual notes of melodies and solos on both the down- and upbeats of a song. It’s a style prominent in Appalachian music and bluegrass. Watson was said to have honed his swiftly paced version of flat-picking by adapting fiddle melodies to his guitar.

As Doc developed and began touring as a musician, he accumulated broader musical influences extending beyond the Appalachian Mountains that he incorporated into his sound. Doc would later tell biographer Fred Metting, “I can’t be put in a box. I play traditional music and whatever else I’m drawn to.”

Doc’s style blended elements of bluegrass, folk, early country, gospel, blues, Celtic ballads, and Appalachian music into a sound that today might be described as “Americana.” Doc, however, was nearly half a century ahead of the trend and is unquestionably one of the most influential pioneers of the popular Americana genre without ever trying to be.

Most significantly, Doc infused his performances with his effortless, laidback humor and heartfelt stories just as he blended the music he played with his good-natured personality. With this distinctive ability, he made the most melancholy ballads spirited where they were included in sets or on albums with rollicking, playful songs featuring subjects as modest as moles, frogs, and horses, just to name a few of his animal-themed tracks.

Doc’s music was warm, inviting, inclusive, jubilant, and, quite simply, fun because the man from whom it emerged exuded those very qualities himself.

Although he was in his forties when his musical career came to prominence during the folk music revival of the 1960s, Doc released albums into the early 2000s. He won the last of his multiple Grammys in 2007. His career also included playing partnerships with his son, Merle, and grandson, Richard. In 1997, President Bill Clinton awarded Doc the National Medal of Arts at the White House.

There’s a wealth of resources dedicated to the life of Arthel Lane “Doc” Watson, who passed in 2012. For an excellent read, check out Metting’s The Life, Work, and Music of the American Folk Artist Doc Watson.

This year, as we celebrate a century of Doc and his music on his birthday, March 3, we’re featuring regional events in honor of Doc’s 100th birthday and some annual events and ongoing exhibits that demonstrate his lasting effect on music, musicians, and music lovers all through the Carolina mountains and far beyond. 



Will Easter and the Nomads performing at MerleFestMusician Will Easter hosts a pair of birthday weekend jams in the two North Carolina counties nearest and dearest to Doc, Watauga and Wilkes. Beginning at 4 p.m., Friday, March 3, Easter welcomes musicians to The Cardinal, 1711 NC-105, Boone, NC, and at 6:30 p.m., Saturday, March 4, he’ll host pickers at the Anchor Coffee Co. North Wilkesboro Café and Roastery, 1320 W. D St., North Wilkesboro, NC. Both events are open jams for all who want to bring an instrument and play or just sit back and listen to the music of and inspired by Doc.

For Easter, whose band Will Easter and the Nomads placed in last year’s MerleFest emerging artists competition and turned heads with their subsequent Sunday kick-off performance at the festival, Doc’s music was a force that literally and figuratively moved him.

“I wouldn’t be at the place I’m at in my life if it wasn’t for Doc,” Easter said. “Without him, I wouldn’t be pursuing music the way that I am now, and I never would have moved to Wilkes County and from there to Boone and [Doc’s home community of] Deep Gap.”

A native of Stokes County, North Carolina, Easter attended his first MerleFest in 2013. The event was transformational to the young, aspiring musician. After catching the festival a second time the following year, Easter decided to move to Wilkes County in the summer of 2014.

Years of following in Doc’s footsteps, physically and musically, have given Easter a closer connection to the sound and style of Watson’s music as well as the places that made Doc the person he was.

“Doc oozed authenticity through his music,” Easter said. “It’s the sound of home.”

You can also see Easter and his friend, Brooks Forsyth, take the Appalachian Theatre stage for the series “Local Night @AppTheatre,” 7 – 9 p.m., Thursday, March 9. Visit AppTheatre.org for more information.


Genre-bending, flat-picking Billy Strings plays back-to-back shows at Winston-Salem’s Lawrence Joel Veterans Memorial Coliseum this weekend. The first night’s performance takes place on what would have been Doc’s 100th birthday, Friday, March 3, and Strings is dedicating the entire night to his musical idol.

The Grammy- and multi-time International Bluegrass Music Association Award-winning Strings is a Michigan native, who was deeply influenced by Watson as a young musician despite the distance between their homes. (For an amazing anecdote about Strings’ admiration for Doc, read on further to JD Dooley’s interview.) Now, red-hot in popularity and selling-out stadiums nationwide, Strings’ music showcases his own cross-genre, guitar virtuosity while remaining rooted in the Watson-style of flat-picking.

Strings’ set lists often include a Doc song or two, and Friday’s tribute, featuring a host of special guest performers, in Winston-Salem will certainly be an all-out Doc delight. Don’t forget about his Saturday, March 4, performance, either! Both nights’ shows will also be preceded and followed by Doc-themed parties at several venues on the Trade Street block of Winston-Salem, near the Mast Store.


Two of Doc’s former side players join a group of his personal friends for an evening of music and memories. “Doc at 100” is a series of performances commemorating Doc’s centennial birthday organized by former director of Virginia’s Crooked Road Heritage Music Trail Jack Hinshelwood and East Tennessee State University Appalachian and Bluegrass, Old Time, and Roots Music Studies professor Ted Olson.

Olson delivers a talk about the history and importance of Doc Watson’s musical legacy prior to each event. Then, for the concert, noted guitarist and luthier Wayne Henderson partners with Doc’s former touring mates Jack Lawrence and T. Michael Coleman along with Hinshelwood, a guitarist and fiddler himself.

Several dates in the series have already taken place, but you can still catch a couple in our area at the Wortham Center for the Performing Arts, 18 Biltmore Avenue, Asheville, NC, on Saturday, March 25, or, later this summer on Saturday, August 19, at the Blue Ridge Music Center’s outdoor amphitheater, 700 Foothills Road, Galax, Virginia.


MerleFest is one of the largest and most popular music festivals in the Southeast. The event, entering its 35th year, began with humble origins as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College.

Wall at the Garden of the Senses at Wilkes Community College

A friend of Doc, Fredrick “B” Townes, asked him if he’d like to help the college’s horticulture program raise money by putting on (what was initially intended to be) a small concert on campus. Doc agreed on the condition that the college would build a garden dedicated to the memory of his son, Merle, who had passed in a tragic accident just two years earlier. The college accepted.

With Doc’s support and reputation behind the event, many of his prominent musician friends readily signed on. Before the first festival could take place, its bill had already grown and gained so much public interest that it had to be rescheduled to spring of the next year and moved to an outdoor venue to accommodate the audience.

Despite the event’s prolonged success, much about the original event remains the same, according to festival director Wes Whitson.

“Doc’s wish was that MerleFest continue to be a fundraiser, so that remains true to this day,” Whitson said. “Each year, 100 percent benefits Wilkes Community College.”

MerleFest also continues to draw top talent, and that’s the case this year with headliners including The Avett Brothers, Nickel Creek, Tanya Tucker, Maren Morris, Little Feat, and Marcus King. This year’s MerleFest will feature Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday Jam on Saturday, April 29.

One thing that’s certainly changed since the beginning, however, said Whitson is that MerleFest now requires several thousand volunteers working over the course of the year. These volunteers help make the event possible and ensure that it remains entirely a fundraiser for the college.

Importantly, too, MerleFest is both proof and perpetuation of Doc Watson’s influence on music.

“MerleFest shows that Doc’s legacy remains with us and lives on,” Whitson said.

This year’s MerleFest is set to take place from Thursday, April 27 until Sunday, April 30. If you attend be sure to visit the onsite MerleFest Museum and, especially, the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses, which includes a wheelchair-accessible path, Braille description plaques, and fragrantly scented flowers. A remarkable brick mural of Doc and Merle playing music together is opposite the garden.

For more information, visit MerleFest.org.


In an affiliation spanning nearly two decades, JD Dooley is the past director of the Doc and Rosa Lee Watson Musicfest ‘N Sugar Grove. JD, also a Mast Store employee since 1999, shares some of his favorite memories of Doc in his own words:

Doc Watson with JD Dooley“By the time I met Doc Watson he was already a national treasure. He had enjoyed a storied career and helped shape the face of Folk and Americana music in a style most-often referred to as Docabilly. Doc had made it clear that he wanted to perform closer to home and after a successful event called, “Doc Watson Appreciation Day,” the Musicfest ‘N Sugar Grove was formed. I came on in the second year as the marketing manager and built the website, created the poster and brochure, and became Doc’s photographer.

“As the years went by, it became a challenge to get a fresh photo of Doc. We wanted a new location for each poster, all of which now hang in the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum located on the festival grounds. I remember one year we decided to shoot the photo at the Mast Farm Inn in Valle Crucis, and when Doc showed up, unbeknownst to him, he was wearing the exact shirt he had worn the year before. It was from a collection of shirts that he performed in, and it still looked new, but luckily, I recognized it. We ran over to the Mast Store Annex and grabbed a new one for the shoot.

“There are a lot of music festivals out there, but Doc being Doc is what made Sugar Grove special. Other musicians wanted to be around Doc and play at his signature festival. The list of musicians and bands that came for a very reasonable rate was incredible. The Krüger Brothers, Rhonda Vincent, Sam Bush, The Steep Canyon Rangers, Willie Watson, Trey Hensley, David Holt, Doyle Lawson, and many, many more.

“We also helped many an upcoming artist get a start including Rhiannon Giddens and the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who stayed at my house during their visit; Old Crow Medicine Show, who we finally invited to officially appear in the lineup after they snuck into the festival the year before by wading a creek with their instruments; and, most recently, Billy Strings, who wore loose pants (performers weren’t allowed to wear shorts onstage) so he could show the audience the Doc Watson tattoo on his calf.

“Doc is missed for many reasons, but I think the important thing is that we celebrate his legacy and support those inspired by him,” said JD.

This year’s Doc and Rosa Lee Watson Musicfest ‘N Sugar Grove is set for Saturday, July 15. Be sure to visit the Doc and Merle Watson Folk Art Museum located inside the Historic Cove Creek School, a building listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

For more information, go to docwatsonmusicfest.org.


The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame hosts several exhibits featuring memorabilia from Doc’s career.

Inside the Blue Ridge Music Hall of FameDoc, a 2008 inductee, and MerleFest, a 2022 inductee, are among scores of musicians, festivals, music producers, record labels, folk dancers, and other performers, organizations, and venues honored with gold plaques detailing their contributions to the arts and culture of the Blue Ridge Mountain region.

The Wilkes Heritage Museum, which houses the Hall of Fame, preserves the heritage of Wilkes County through buildings, artifacts, and documents. Located in the beautifully preserved, historic Wilkes County courthouse, the museum is situated in the hometown of the largest festival attached to Watson’s legacy.

If you visit, another must-see is the vibrant Doc Watson mural located directly across the street from the museum’s front lawn. Entitled “Where the Mountains Begin” and painted by Wes Gregory, it depicts the art, history, and natural landscapes of Wilkes County.

The Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame’s 2023 induction ceremony is scheduled for Saturday, March 25. Tickets for the induction ceremony concert are $20 and are on sale now.

Doc Watson with the newly-installed Doc Watson Statue in Downtown Boone - Photo by Tom FottaThe Wilkes Heritage Museum is open 10 a.m. – 4 p.m. daily except Sundays. It’s located at 100 E. Main St., Wilkesboro. Admission is $7 for the general public, $6 for military, students, and seniors. Children 5 and under get in for free. For more information, visit wilkesheritagemuseum.org or call 336-667-3171.

The Jones House Cultural and Community Center in Boone showcases the “Doc Watson 100th Birthday Exhibit,” which is on display in the Mazie Jones Gallery until Sunday, March 26. It features pictures, photos, concert posters, records, and art pieces pertaining to Doc. Admission is free 5 – 7 p.m., Friday, March 3, and refreshments will be served to celebrate Doc’s birthday.  

This cherished local venue is also the site of Doc Watson Day festivities, held each year on the third Friday of August. This event began with the 2011 dedication of the famous Doc Watson bench statue on the corner of King and Depot streets in Boone, one year before he passed. The statue’s plaque bears the phrase, “Just one of the People,” at Doc’s request. Doc Watson Day brings together musicians, many of whom knew or played music with Doc, to celebrate his life through song. 

The Jones House is located at 604 W. King St., Boone, right next to the Mast General Store in Downtown Boone. For more information, visit joneshouse.org.

PlayList Featuring 100 Songs

Enjoy this curated Spotify playlist featuring Doc Watson recordings from across his career. It includes performances by Doc himself and others he played with on stage with over the years.
Doc Watson Spotify Playlist


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