When it started in 1988, MerleFest had its late-April weekend time slot pretty much to itself. But the live-concert industry has changed drastically since then, and the nationwide festival circuit has grown to the point that MerleFest is far from the only big festival of the year – or even that weekend.
“The very same weekend, there’s Stagecoach in California and Jazz Fest in New Orleans,” said MerleFest director Ted Hagaman. “We’re still one of the first every year, but there are festivals just about every weekend now, not just during the summer. We book against them all over the country.”
The 30th edition of the venerable festival commences Thursday in Wilkesboro, with 13 stages worth of acts from large to small over four days. MerleFest will bring a total four-day attendance of around 75,000 participants to events around the campus of Wilkes Community College, an influx that will inject an estimated $10 million into the economy of the area which is about 160 miles west of Raleigh.
“That’s about the size every year, and our goal has never been to see how big we could get,” Hagaman said. “There are limitations with roads, hotels, infrastructure. So it’s more about maintaining the quality of the event, making sure everyone who comes feels like they get their money’s worth. If we keep our eye on that ball, everything else will take care of itself.”
As always, folk and bluegrass acts account for the bulk of the performer lineup, including regulars like Peter Rowan, Kruger Brothers, Del McCoury, Sam Bush and Steep Canyon Rangers. But there are also enough ringers – platinum-level country act Zac Brown Band, Concord folk-rock band the Avett Brothers, multiple Grammy winner Sarah Jarosz – to take the music farther afield into what festival founder Watson dubbed “Traditional Plus.”
“Doc defined that as ‘traditional music of the Appalachian region, plus anything else I want to play,’ ” said Hagaman. “That still stands, even though there have been a lot of changes with MerleFest and also festivals in general. One big change for us was five years ago, when Doc passed. We have to do things a little differently now, keep in mind what needs to be preserved and what needs to change.”
Three decades ago, MerleFest arose from profoundly tragic circumstances. Doc Watson had been blind since infancy, arising from hardscrabble circumstances to become one of the most renowned flat-picking guitarists in the world.
Watson still lived in his native Deep Gap, even after the folk-revival boom of the early 1960s suddenly created a wide audience for the old folk songs he’d grown up playing. For many years Doc’s regular onstage guitar foil and touring partner was his son, Eddy Merle Watson. Together, they were an incredible combination.
But tragedy struck in 1985, when Merle was killed in a tractor accident. He was just 36 years old, and his passing left the family grief-stricken. Doc was on the verge of giving up touring – until, he said, his son appeared to him in a dream and urged him to keep going.
So Doc enlisted other playing partners like David Holt and Jack Lawrence, and he continued his career. He also started MerleFest in 1988 as a benefit concert, with the first one funding construction of a “garden of the senses” for the blind in Merle’s name at Wilkes Community College.
MerleFest immediately took off and became an annual fixture, funding an array of programs at the college. It was all centered around Doc, who would turn up on various stages throughout the weekend (including the Sunday morning gospel set). The fact that Watson was one of the most universally beloved figures in American music made it easy to attract the cream of the crop in folk, bluegrass and the emerging Americana genre.
“Doc was always listening,” said Rowan, who is among a handful of musicians to have played every single MerleFest. “Whatever you did up there, you knew Doc was listening and you wanted to pay homage to the tradition and the aura he represented. It was his friendships with so many people that really made it happen. Everybody loved Doc and held him in wonder, like an oracle.”
Watson remained a major presence at MerleFest up until his own passing in 2012 at age 89, and he still casts a long shadow even five years after his death. Just about everybody who knew Watson has stories about his remarkable ability to seemingly see even though he was blind.
“Doc always amazed me, what he understood about how things worked even though he was blind,” Hagaman said. “He told me once about replacing a clothesline and the bolt he’d used, going into great detail about how it had been engineered. I wondered how he knew that. Another time when I went to his house, he told me I was late. I looked at my watch and sure enough, I was three minutes late. ‘How does he know this?’ I thought to myself. I still don’t know that, either.”
In Watson’s absence, MerleFest’s organizers strive for balance in the lineup between well-known acts and lesser-known upstarts. That brings a lot of loyal MerleFest attendees back every year in search of something new.
“I come for the camaraderie and the music,” said David Finch of Raleigh, who has been going for more than a decade. “There’s no alcohol so people come for the music. And for me, the funnest part is discovering some act I’d never heard of on one of the little side stages. Happened with the Honeycutters and Shinyribs, new bands I come away loving. That’s the best.”
It’s pretty much been that way at MerleFest from the start. Rowan, who first gained attention as guitarist in Bill Monroe’s Bluegrass Boys in the 1960s, was one of the acts Watson made a linchpin of the festival.
“Doc brought in the old bluegrass acts and also our generation, and we were established but still up and coming,” Rowan said. “Doc took me under his wing in a very casual way because a lot of what he was doing, I was trying to do, too. With Bill (Monroe), you never got the idea you were doing it quite right. He was tough. But Doc, he was always very encouraging. ‘Play it, boy!’ ”
What: MerleFest featuring Zac Brown Band, Avett Brothers, Bela Fleck, Del McCoury, Leftover Salmon, Sarah Jarosz and many others
When: Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, April 30
Where: Wilkes Community College, 1328 S. Collegiate Drive, Wilkesboro
Cost: 4-day reserved seats $235; 4-day general admission $180, 3-day general admission $155, daily tickets $50-$75. Ticket prices are good through April 26. On April 27, prices increase by $15. Prices do not include taxes and fees.
Details: 800-343-7857 or merlefest.org