In 1974, Gallagher Guitar Co. designed a new model especially for Watson, and the Wartrace-based company has sold a line of guitars named for Watson ever since.
Doc told Don Gallagher he wanted Don to come up and spend some time with him in North Carolina. Don and Stephen had planned to make the trip this summer, and Don looked forward to the chance to let Stephen get to know the acoustic guitar legend a little better.
They never got the chance.
Arthel "Doc" Watson died Tuesday at age 89 at Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center in Winston-Salem, N.C. Seven of his albums won Grammy awards and he received a lifetime achievement Grammy award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
"I knew it was coming," said Gallagher, who'd been kept apprised of Watson's condition since Watson was injured last week in a fall.
"It was very sad for me," said Gallagher, who said he didn't sleep well Tuesday night after receiving the news.
"He was such a genuine person," he said, calling the acclaimed musician "friendly and humble."
"Overall, Doc will be remembered as one of America's greatest folk musicians. I would say he's one of America's greatest musicians," said David Holt, a longtime friend and collaborator who compared Watson to Leadbelly, Bill Monroe, Muddy Waters and Earl Scruggs.
Watson, blind since age 1, rose from playing for tips to starring at Carnegie Hall.
Gallagher said that Watson, due to his own blindness, was always moved by the line from "Amazing Grace," "I once was lost but now am found / Was blind, but now I see." Kent Gustavson's award-winning biography of Watson, which includes material about Watson's use of Gallagher guitars, was entitled "Blind, But Now I See."
Gallagher said Holt told him that Holt played "Amazing Grace" for Watson on the harmonica as Watson was on his deathbed.
"He had a strong faith that had really developed over the past 10 years or so," said Gallagher, who is also a Church of Christ preacher.
Watson had to deal in his lifetime with the challenge of blindness and with the tragic death of his son and collaborator Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. Watson considered retiring from the music business but instead started an annual music festival in Wilkesboro, N.C., in his son's memory. Merlefest celebrates "traditional plus" music.
"When Merle and I started out we called our music 'traditional plus,' meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play," Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the festival's website. "Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is 'traditional plus.'"
Gallagher said there's no way to measure the impact Watson had on his business and career. Doc Watson was a walking advertisement for Gallagher guitars during his performances, and Gallagher has gotten e-mails from as far away as France and Sweden reacting to Watson's death.
"He's left quite a legacy," said Gallagher.
Gallagher wasn't the only Bedford County resident with ties to the musician. Roy Turrentine of Normandy said his mother, the late Bell Buckle resident Jocelyn Turrentine, once had a piano student at the North Carolina School For The Blind named Paul Montgomery. Montgomery, later a children's TV personality in Raleigh, N.C., taught Watson his first guitar chord, said Roy Turrentine. Turrentine said it was probably the only chord Montgomery knew, but it was enough to get Watson started.
The statue of Watson dedicated last summer depicts him sitting on a bench. At Watson's request the inscription read, "Just One of the People," echoing a statement he'd once made to Holt about how he'd like to be remembered.
"Just as a good ol' down-to-earth boy that didn't think he was perfect and that loved music," Watson said. "And I'd like to leave quite a few friends behind and I hope I will. Other than that, I don't want nobody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I'm just one of the people ... just me."
--Associated Press reports contributed to this story.