Arthel "Doc" Watson's mastery of flatpicking helped make the case for the guitar as a lead instrument in the 1950s and 1960s, when it was often considered a backup for the mandolin, fiddle or banjo.
Watson won Grammy awards for his particular "mountain-rooted" sound
Country and bluegrass singer Ricky Skaggs said Tuesday evening, "An old ancient warrior has gone home."
Doc Watson was born March 3, 1923, in Deep Gap, about 100 miles northwest of Charlotte. He lost his eyesight by the age of 1 when he developed an eye infection that was worsened by a congenital vascular disorder, according to a website for Merlefest, the annual musical gathering named for his late son Merle.
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.
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 fans of traditional country and folk music.
According to the Encyclopedia of Country Music, Watson took his nickname at age 19 when someone couldn't pronounce his name and a girl in the audience shouted "Call him Doc!"
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.
North Carolina Gov. Beverly Perdue said in a statement Tuesday evening that Watson will be missed.
"Over his long and brilliant career, Doc Watson traveled the world playing the music he loved, but his heart never strayed far from his home in Deep Gap, N.C.," Perdue said. "Our state was fortunate to have such a worldwide ambassador of North Carolina's culture and heritage."
In 2011, a life-size statue of Watson was dedicated in Boone, N.C., at the spot where Watson had played decades earlier for tips to support his family, according to the Folklore statement. At Watson's request the inscription read, "Just One of the People."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.