But his own breakthrough came by accident. Musician and folklorist Ralph Rinzler traveled to the South to record old-time singer and banjo player Clarence "Tom" Ashley, who recruited some neighbors, including Watson, for the session. Watson had to borrow a friend's Gibson because he didn't own an acoustic guitar.
The recordings stirred up some interest, and Rinzler took the players to New York for a concert at Town Hall that helped coalesce the growing folk audience. Watson also got a booking at Gerde's Folk City in Greenwich Village; and in 1962 Watson, Ashley and company headed west for their first Ash Grove engagement. They also played key folk festivals, including those at Newport, R.I., and UCLA.
Watson eventually followed Rinzler's advice and emerged as a solo performer, though he was soon accompanied regularly by his guitarist son, Merle. For Watson, the career offered an opportunity to pull his weight and support his family, and one of his proudest moments was informing a North Carolina state agency that he no longer needed financial assistance for the blind.
It all came to a temporary halt when Merle was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, but after a hiatus Watson returned to the road. In 1988 he organized MerleFest, an informal folk music gathering in Wilkesboro, N.C., that has grown into one of the country's major folk festivals.
Watson, who recorded for a variety of record labels, disliked touring because it kept him away from his home and family, and he first announced his retirement from the road in 1988. He gradually cut back on his schedule but continued to play occasional concerts.
On "Legacy," a 2002 recording of music and conversation with Watson and musician David Holt, Watson is asked how he'd like to be remembered.
"Just as a good old, down-to-earth boy that didn't think he was perfect and that loved music," he says. "And I'd like to leave quite a few friends behind.... Other than that, I don't want anybody putting me on a pedestal when I leave here. I'm just one of the people."
Besides his wife of nearly 66 years, Watson is survived by his daughter Nancy Ellen, two grandchildren, several great-grandchildren and a brother, David.