Born as Eddy Merle Watson on February 8, 1949 in Deep Gap, North Carolina, son of Doc Watson another NC Music Hall of Fame inductee. Merle was named after Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis, his father’s favorite singers. His mother was Rosa Lee Carlton, daughter of fiddler Gaither W. Carlton.
Doc toured with guitarist Clint Howard until one day when they returned home, they had discovered young Merle had taught himself to play flat-picking guitar. In 1965, at the age of 17, Merle replaced Howard as Doc’s second guitarist. Although “second guitarist” often implies a diminutive role of rhythm guitar, this was not the case as Merle and Doc alternated between lead and rhythm roles during their performances.
“Flat Picking” is a style where the player uses a flat pick or “plectrum” to play the melody on an acoustic guitar; this can sometimes be at lightning speed, like when the guitarist plays a fast fiddle tune. This differs from guitarists like Chet Atkins or Merle Travis who used a thumb pick to play with their thumb and fingers.
Doc and Merle Watson’s first album together was Doc Watson & Son in 1965. During their career, the two recorded 12 albums together. Doc and Merle Watson were nominated for and won many Grammys, including Best Ethnic or Traditional Recording for Then and Now in 1973 and a Grammy in 1979 for Best Instrumental Performance for their track “Big Sandy/Leather Britches.” In 1985, Frets Magazine named Merle Watson Best Finger-Picking Guitarist-Folk/Blues or Country.
In 1996, the film Doc and Merle, which told the story of their careers, was released.
Merle Watson died on October 23, 1985 at the age of 36 in Lenoir, North Carolina when the tractor he was driving rolled over and pinned him. Two years later, in 1988, Doc Watson founded MerleFest in honor of his son’s memory.
MerleFest is one of the leading folk music festivals in the nation, held to honor the memory of Merle Watson. The festival, held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, raises money for the Wilkesboro Community College Foundation which funds scholarships and other needs at Wilkesboro Community College.