Cowboy, banjo player Red Watson dies at 101 |

Cowboy, banjo player Red Watson dies at 101

Karen Woodmansee
Appeal Staff Writer

Roderick “Red” Watson, who spent his life as a cowboy, Canadian intelligence officer, banjoist and blue-ribbon watercolor artist, has died at 101 years old.

He died about 1 p.m. Sunday at home, surrounded by his family, said daughter Tanya Millim of Carson City.

“He would have been 102 in January,” she said. “He had such an awesome life; he was such a wonderful man and he contributed so much to so many.”

Watson was born in Scotland on Jan. 29, 1906, and moved to Canada when he was 7. At 16 he went to work for the Douglas Lake Cattle Co. in Vancouver, B.C.

“I carried a 30/30 rifle on my shoulder from the time I was 16 until World War II,” Watson said in a 2006 interview with the Appeal.

Watson joined the Canadian military as an intelligence officer, serving much of the time on Canada’s west coast.

But mostly he was known as a cowboy and a musician. Millim said he has been inducted into two halls of fame for his banjo playing, one in Colorado and one in Nebraska, and he has been nominated to be enshrined in the Banjo Hall of Fame in Guthrie, Okla.

After World War II, Watson toured the U.S. as a banjoist. He spent years traveling the country picking his banjo, eventually being inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville.

“I didn’t try to be a big shot. I never expected anything like that. We just played for the people,” Watson said.

Barbara Smith, of Virginia City, a longtime friend, said Watson was the first banjo player with the Mickey Finn band in San Diego from 1960 to 1965. He went to San Francisco for four years before retiring to Virginia City, where he returned to riding horseback when he became a member of the Virginia City Mounted Posse.

He moved into the Mountain Springs Assisted Living Community at the age of 99. He continued to play the banjo into his 80s, until a mild stroke prevented him from forming the chords.

“Studio musicians were astounded to see a 75-year-old cowboy go in and tear into 13 classic and intricate arrangements by memory,” Smith said.

“He was a great guy and I loved to argue with him,” she said. “In the 1950s he used to go up to the bars and say ‘By the living God.’ It was Celtic I guess.”

She said he was very neat, a gentleman, and very much in love with his wife, Sue Ellen, who died in 2002 at the age of 60. He called her “the love of my life.”

He had married three times and had five children.

“My whole life is a memory and I have lots of them. I like being a cattle herder, you would call that a cowboy now,” Watson said. “I’ve rode too many horses to brag because some of them bucked me really good.”

Watson took up painting during his touring days and afterward; he said his favorite was watercolors because it allowed him to paint the open spaces he loved.

“There are so many beautiful places. I do a lot of painting because I liked the places,” Watson said. “I love the look of the country, even during the tough days.”

His secret to longevity was to “keep your mouth shut. You learn more that way. Don’t brag ’cause it will come back to bite you.”

• Contact reporter Karen Woodmansee at or 882-2111 ext. 351.