He came from a musical family. His father was active in the church choir and played banjo and his mother sang secular and religious songs, according to a statement from Folklore Productions, his management company since 1964.
Watson learned a few guitar chords while attending the North Carolina Morehead School for the Blind in Raleigh, and his father helped him buy a Stella guitar for $12.
"My real interest in music was the old 78 records and the sound of the music," Doc Watson is quoted as saying on the website. "I loved it and began to realize that one of the main sounds on those old records I loved was the guitar."
The wavy-haired Watson got his musical start in 1953, playing electric lead guitar in a country-and-western swing band. His road to fame began in 1960 when Ralph Rinzler, a musician who also managed Bill Monroe, discovered Watson in North Carolina. That led Watson to the Newport Folk Festival in 1963 and his first recording contract a year later. He went on to record 60 albums, and wowed fans ranging from '60s hippies to those who loved traditional country and folk music.
Seven of his albums won Grammy awards; his eighth Grammy was a lifetime achievement award in 2004. He also received the National Medal of the Arts from President Bill Clinton in 1997.
Guitarist Pete Huttlinger of Nashville, Tenn., said Watson made every song his own, regardless of its age.
"He's one of those lucky guys," said Huttlinger, who studied Watson's methods when he first picked up a guitar. "When he plays something, he puts his stamp on it -- it's Doc Watson."
Merle began recording and touring with him in 1964. But Merle Watson died at age 36 in a 1985 tractor accident, sending his father into deep grief and making him consider retirement. Instead, he kept playing and started Merlefest, an annual musical event in Wilkesboro, N.C., that raises money for a community college there and 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.'"
Watson never let his blindness hold him back musically or at home. He rose from playing for tips to starring at Carnegie Hall.
And he was just as proficient at home. Joe Newberry, a musician and spokesman for the North Carolina Department of Cultural Resources, remembered once when his wife called the Watson home. Rosa Lee Watson, Watson's wife since 1947, said her husband was on the roof, replacing shingles. His daughter Nancy Watson said her father built the family's utility shed.
It's that same kind of self-sufficiency that once led him to refuse his government disability check.
"He basically started making enough money performing ????? couple of hundred dollars a week," Holt said. "So he went to the services for the blind and said he was making enough money to support his family and they should take what they were giving him and give it to somebody who needed it more."
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C. 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 writers Martha Waggoner and Tom Foreman Jr. contributed to this report from Raleigh, N.C.
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