Watson was never a big record-seller, making the Billboard charts only once in his career (and then no higher than No. 193, in 1975 with the album "Memories"). But he transcended mainstream popularity, earning eight Grammy Awards, including a lifetime achievement award in 2004.
Watson's influence was vast, on audiences and other musicians.
"He was a great and groundbreaking guitarist, but Doc was more than that," said Wayne Martin, executive director of the North Carolina 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."
Watson was instrumental in transforming the guitar from a background rhythm role to a lead instrument in acoustic music. Yet few players in any style came close to duplicating his flawless flatpicking style. Generations of acoustic guitarists would spend hours trying to match the grace and speed Watson combined as he played tunes such as "Black Mountain Rag" and "Billy in the Lowground."
Watson never went out of his way to call attention to himself. Barry Poss, who released 13 of Watson's albums on his Sugar Hill Records label, used to get frustrated with Watson's modesty in the recording studio.
"If there's another guitar player around, he'll almost always defer to that other player and lay back," Poss said of Watson in 2003. "He really has no interest in pretentiousness, showing off, 'Here's what I can do.' It just never happens. In the studio, it can be hard to get him to take a hot lead."
While he played all over the world, Watson still lived most of his life in the vicinity of the Deep Gap community where he was born in 1923. Blind since infancy, Watson's first childhood instrument was harmonica. His father made him a banjo at age 10, and he learned the basics of guitar from a neighbor.
Perhaps this comment says it best:
"Doc has been an influence on every player of traditional music that I know," said Joe Newberry, who works for the state arts council and plays in various ensembles. "I used to say that Doc is what North Carolina sounds like. But somebody posted on my Facebook wall, no, Doc is what America sounds like. He's been a good face to the world for North Carolina."