Mr. Watson was the founder of MerleFest, a traditional music event in Wilkesboro, N.C., and one of the largest annual folk festivals in the South. The festival was named for his son and frequent musical partner, Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in 1985.
In a career that spanned seven decades, Mr. Watson influenced such diverse musicians as Jerry Garcia of the Grateful Dead, Clarence White of the Byrds, the innovative acoustic picker Leo Kottke and bluegrass multiinstrumentalist Ricky Skaggs.
“He is single-handedly responsible for the extraordinary increase in acoustic flat-picking and finger-picking guitar performance,” the late Ralph Rinzler, an influential folklorist who first recorded Mr. Watson in the early 1960s, once wrote. “His flat-picking style has no precedent in earlier country music history.”
Mr. Watson’s repertoire included country songs, blues and contemporary folk by writers including Bob Dylan and Tom Paxton. And he was musically adventurous, once even jamming on his flat-top folk guitar with the electric soul band Booker T. and the MGs during a 1996 performance at the Wolf Trap outdoor theater in Vienna.
He was best known, however, for his old-timey music — the fiddle tunes that he adapted for the guitar and traditional folk songs, such as “Shady Grove,” that had been passed down through oral tradition from their origins in the British Isles to the rural communities of the American South.
“His music is human, the vivid and simple songs carrying him and the listener to another time, another place,” critic Dana Andrew Jennings wrote in the New York Times in 1995. “When he sings a bluesy Jimmie Rodgers yodel, one feels the sting of the Great Depression and the solace Rodgers provided. When he sings a Carter Family song, one can see their Clinch Mountain home in Virginia.”
As a young guitarist, Mr. Watson was inspired by the records of Grady Martin, a renowned Nashville session musician who acquired a following in the late 1940s for his fast fingerwork on the electric guitar. Mr. Watson learned to play fast fiddle tunes on a Les Paul electric guitar and performed in a rockabilly and Western swing band in the 1950s.
In 1960, as part of his field work, Rinzler went to North Carolina to record Mr. Watson’s neighbor, the old-timey guitarist Clarence Ashley, with Mr. Watson as an accompanist, for Folkways Records. At Rinzler’s insistence, Mr. Watson reluctantly used a Martin folk guitar instead of his electric instrument. He never returned to the Les Paul.
Folkways released the album “Old Time Music at Clarence Ashley’s” (1961). The recording helped create momentum for Mr. Watson’s old-time music. At folk festivals, Rinzler teamed him with Ashley, guitarist Clint Howard and fiddler Fred Price. Mr. Watson also performed as a soloist at Gerde’s Folk City in Greenwich Village — the club where Bob Dylan played some of his earliest engagements.