Etta Baker

MORGANTON, N.C. - Etta Baker, an influential blues guitarist who recorded with Taj Mahal and was awarded by the National Endowment for the Arts, died Saturday, family and friends said. She was 93.

No cause of death was provided, but her health had been failing for years, The News & Observer of Raleigh reported on its Website.

Baker died in Fairfax, Va. while visiting a daughter who had suffered a stroke.

"She just had to go, she just had to see my sister," said Darlene Davis, another daughter who lives next door to Baker's house in Morganton. "She was a great mother and a tower of strength for the family. We always looked up to her."

She was raised in a musical family in Western North Carolina. Baker made her first mark in music in 1956, when she appeared on a compilation album called "Instrumental Music of the Southern Appalachians." The recording was very influential on the growing folk revival, especially her versions of "Railroad bill" and "One-Dime Blues."

She worked for 26 years at a textile mill in Morganton before quitting at age 60 to pursue a career as a professional musician.

Baker became a hit on the international folk-festival circuit, playing Piedmont blues, a mix of clattery rhythms of bluegrass as well as blues.

Mahal, who recorded an album with Baker in 2004, was among those who found inspiration from her rhythmic finger-picking.

"I came upon that record in the '60s," Mahal said. "It didn't have any pictures so I had no idea who she was until I got to meet her years later. But man, that chord in 'Railroad Bill,' that was just the chord. It just cut right through me. I can't even describe how deep that was for me, just beautiful stuff."

Baker also raised a family that eventually numbered nine children.

She also suffered great losses.

Her husband suffered a debilitating stroke in 1964. That same year she was in a serious car accident that killed one of her grandsons. In the span of a month in 1967, her husband died and one of her sons was killed in the Vietnam War.

Baker toured well into her 80s, but finally had to quit because of heart problems.

This year she no longer had the strength to play guitar so she focused on playing banjo. She could still play great a month ago, said Wayne Martin, who plays fiddle on her banjo collection coming out next year.

Baker also is to appear on blues-rock guitarist Kenny Wayne Shepherd's next album due out in November.

"She embodied everything we love about the South," said Tim Duffy, who worked with Baker through his Music Maker Relief Foundation.

"She was strong, warm, witty, gentle; a gardener and also the world's premiere Piedmont-style blues guitarist," he said. "Like B.B. King and single-string blues, anybody who has picked up acoustic finger-style guitar has been influenced by Etta whether they know it or not."

Funeral plans were not immediately available.

Published in Charlotte Observer from Sept. 24 to Sept. 27, 2006