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Arthel “Doc” Watson died yesterday. He was 89 years old.

Watson was in a hospital in Winston-Salem, North Carolina , where he had recently undergone abdominal surgery.

Watson is a legend — a guitar player, singer and a musical influence for the past several generations. “He was a great and groundbreaking guitarist, but Doc was more than that,” said Wayne Martin, executive director of the N.C. Arts Council. “He made musical traditions of Western North Carolina and the Blue Ridge Mountains accessible to millions. His guitar was a powerful tool to get people’s attention, but I don’t think it was his greatest legacy.”

There are several good obituaries for Doc. Here is one from the Raleigh News & Observer.  The New York Times.  The Los Angeles Times. In this story from the Washington Post, Doc talks about growing up blind:

I imagine there are quite a few good old dads around that had blind children, and mothers that realized just because one of the senses wasn’t there they weren’t worthless,” Watson says. “My brothers took me out to play with them. I climbed trees and fell out just like they did, I tumbled down banks and all the rest of it. And I learned the space world that way and learned how to find things by sound echo. As long as you’re young and your hearing’s good, your ears are pretty good eyes.

The YouTube above shows Watson’s incredible picking style on Deep River Blues — and his ability to combine blues, country, folk and rock and roll.

A few years ago, the Daily Yonder’s Betty Dotson-Lewis wrote about Doc Watson. You can find the full story here. She described how Doc Watson came to his music:

The 86-yearold Watson is legendary performer. He has blended traditional Appalachian music with bluegrass, country, gospel and blues, creating a unique style and an expansive repertoire. 

He was born in Stoney Fork, Watauga County, North Carolina, into a musical family.  His mother sang songs around the house while washing and hanging the clothes out on the line, and at night she sang to her children as they went to sleep.  His father, a farmer and day-laborer, led the singing at the Baptist church they attended.  They often sang from a shape-note book published in 1866, The Christian Harmony. 

Doc took up playing the harmonica when he was six, stringing a piece of steel wire across the woodshed’s sliding door for bass accompaniment.  When Doc was about eleven years old, his father made him a banjo using a cat’s skin for the head (discovering that groundhog hide didn’t have a good tone).  Some say that banjo was the best thing Doc’s father ever did for him, but Doc would disagree.  He says that the greatest gift he received from his dad was a job at the end of a crosscut saw when he was 14.  “He made me know that just because I was blind, certainly didn’t mean I was helpless.”

Doc’s musical roots were family, church and neighbors.  After the Watsons acquired a used wind-up Victrola and a stack of records , he listened to the Carter Family, Jimmie Rodgers, The Carolina Tar Heels, Gid Tanner and the Skillet Lickers. His parents sent him at age ten to Raleigh to school, where he was exposed to classical music and jazz.  A friend taught Doc a few chords on the guitar, and he learned to play his first song: the Carter Family’s tune “When The Roses Bloom in Dixieland.”

“The banjo was something I really liked” Doc says, “but when the guitar came along, to me that was my first love in music.” Starting out, Doc used a thumb pick but soon turned to flat picking, which has become his signature style.

Kentucky will use $4.3 million in money collected in coal severance taxes to pay for scholarships for students in nine coal-producing counties. 

The money will go to those who have already earned at least 60 credit hours toward a BA, and the students must go to a college in the region. 

• The government continues to disappear, a phenomenon that will affect rural areas more than cities.

 The USDA announced Tuesday it will close 125 Farm Service Agency county offices. The USDA announced in January that it would shutter 131 offices. There will be 2,119 offices open after the closures.

The USDA closed offices that were less than 20 miles from another FSA office and that had two or fewer permanent employees. Here is the list of the county offices that will be close. 

Also, the IRS plans to close 43 of its smaller offices. These offices have fewer than 25 employees each. 

• A Texas pipeline company has agreed to pay a more than $1 million fine for three spills in Iowa, Kansas and Nebraska. Mid-America Pipeline Co. also agreed to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in safety and equipment upgrades. 

• NPR reported yesterday on a “flash drought” in the Midwest. 

Low humidity, unusually hot conditions and little rain is creating drought conditions (quickly) in parts of Missouri.

• The New York Times reports from Eastern Kentucky on the decline of coal. Eric Lipton reports: 

Coal and electric utilities, long allied, are beginning to split. More than 100 of the 500 or so coal-burning power plants in the United States are expected to be shut down in the next few years. While coal still provides about a third of the nation’s power, just four years ago it was providing nearly half.

The decline is largely because new pollution rules have made coal plants more costly, while a surge in production of natural gas through the process of hydraulic fracturing, known as fracking, has sent gas prices plummeting. Together, the economics of coal have been transformed after a century of dominance in Washington, state capitals and the board rooms of electric utilities.

“The math screams at you to do gas,” said (Michael G.) Morris (chairman of American Electric Power), whose company is the nation’s largest consumer of coal.

The markets are not being kind to the eastern coalfields. The industry, however, is fighting back, directing ire not at the markets, which favor gas, but at Washington, D.C. The sense is that President Obama’s policies are the cause of coal’s problems, according to Lipton. Those in the utility business, however, talk about an “unprecedented transition” from one fuel source (coal) to another (gas).

• The coal business in the West is doing just fine, but that didn’t stop Republican Mitt Romney from saying yesterday that President Obama’s policies were hurting coal-producing counties in Colorado. 

Romney was in Craig, in the northwest corner of Colorado, where he told a crowd of 800 that Democratic policies were causing problems in the region. “I’m not going to forget communities like this across the country that are hurting right now under this president,” Romney said. “I’m not going to forget middle-class families that are asking themselves why is it that three and a half years after this president got elected, we’re still in a tough economy like this.”

The National Journal pointed out that coal production in Colorado and Utah rose 25 percent in the third quarter of 2011 over the same period in 2010.

• Research out of the University of Texas has found that the nation’s food supply may be vulnerable to rapid groundwater depletion from irrigation, Science Daily reports. The report covers California’s Central Valley and the High Plains across the Midwest. 

“We’re already seeing changes in both areas,” said Bridget Scanlon, senior research scientist at The University of Texas at Austin’s Bureau of Economic Geology and lead author of the study. “We’re seeing decreases in rural populations in the High Plains. Increasing urbanization is replacing farms in the Central Valley. And during droughts some farmers are forced to fallow their land. These trends will only accelerate as water scarcity issues become more severe.”

This is a sobering report. It finds, for example, that irrigated agriculture in much of the southern High Plains (Texas and Kansas) is simply unsustainable. 

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