Doc Watson’s Legacy: What You Should Know About the Folk Legend

Doc Watson, legendary folk icon, died at age 89 on Tuesday. TIME takes a look back at some highlights from his illustrious career.

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Peter D. Figen / Reuters

Doc Watson poses backstage at McCabe's Guitar Shop in Santa Monica, California, in 1986.

Doc Watson, the pioneering folk musician who elevated and shaped guitar playing in America across genres and generations, died Tuesday in North Carolina at the age of 89. In a statement, Watson’s manager said that he passed away in the same hospital where he underwent abdominal surgery last week.

Born of the mountains, Watson grew up in Deep Gap, North Carolina. Blind since the age of one, Watson’s interest in music began at age 11, when his father brought him a banjo he’d made from the skin of a dead cat. He later saved money cutting trees on his family’s farm and bought a mail-order guitar; when he lacked funds to buy additional instruments, he’d improvise—learning to play fiddle parts on his guitar, NPR reports.

His inventiveness eventually became his legacy. Watson’s professional career took off in the early 1960s, when folk music saw a revival. His flat-picking style became his signature, and he inspired generations of bluegrass and country artists with his spitfire handling of complex melodies normally reserved for fiddles and banjos. Watson was the musician’s musician.

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“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and fingerpicking guitar performance,” Smithsonian folklorist Ralph Rinzer, who discovered Watson in 1960, said. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.

Watson recorded over 50 albums, many with his late son Merle, and has been celebrated many times over: he received the National Medal of Arts in 1997, was inducted into the International Bluegrass Music Hall of Honor in Kentucky in 2000, and won eight Grammy awards (including a Lifetime Achievement award in 2004).

Below are a few of his most enduring and influential recordings:


Filmed in the ’60s, Watson’s mastery is seen up close as he performs “Deep River Blues.”


Watson demonstrates how to turn the traditional fiddle tune “Black Mountain Rag” into a dizzying, masterful work on the guitar.


In the clip above, Watson performs “Tennessee Stud,” which would later serve as the title for his 2003 album.


Watson teamed up with legendary banjo artist Earl Scruggs and folk singer and mandolinist Ricky Scaggs for a special concert for public television called The Three Pickers. Above, they perform the country gospel hit “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms.” The entirety of the concert has been uploaded to YouTube.

More: Everything You Need to Know About Earl Scruggs