MerleFest at 30: Bluegrass Makes a Triumphant Return

Flattop, the MerleFest logo

MerleFest. Just saying its name can cause goosebumps and bring forth a flood of memories. Not just me, but other folks I meet along my music travels have the same feelings when I ask them if they have ever been there. Sure, there are larger festivals and those that get more media attention, but just as there was only one Doc Watson, there is only one MerleFest.

It holds a special place for me, not just because I had listened to Doc and Merle for years, but also because some twenty years ago it was the first festival I attended after being away from the circuit for too many years. It was also the first time in years that I picked up my camera, began shooting again and through a fortunate series of events became an ND photographer. Which, in turn, led me to pick up the pen again.

A Bit of History

For the uninitiated, MerleFest began in 1988 and is located on the grounds of Wilkesboro Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Named after Doc Watson's son, Merle who died in 1985, there are thirteen stages, indoor and outdoor. The festival to honor his son was not Doc's idea, but rather a college horticulture instructor, B Townes. Even then Doc was not not so sure. Rather, it was his wife, RosaLee, who convinced him it would be a good idea.

In fact, the first festival was titled Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival and was expected to be a one time thing featuring John Hartford tap dancing, Chet Atkins explaining his picking technique, Tony Rice and Peter Rowan jamming with Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, John Cowan and Jerry Douglas. Along with, of course, Doc.

Everyone who returns to MerleFest each Spring has his or her own story on what the festival means to them. To paraphrase an old TV show, there are 8 million stories, this is one of them. There is a reason why the festival's subtitle is: "Music. Moments. Memories."


While mine are too many to count, often it is the unexpected that loom larger than life. Mine are hearing Dave Rawlings sing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" at the Midnight Jam in 2002; Robert Plant command the Watson Stage as no one else could do in 2011; and most recently in 2014 when Peter Rowan performed "I'm Calling You," to an audience of about eight, with Yungchen Lhamo and Mandolin Orange one morning overlooking the festival grounds, so early that you can see the mist covering the mountains in the distance.

But you do not have to take my word for it. I asked Peter Rowan about what the festival means to him: "MerleFest began simply at the graveside of the late Merle Watson, Doc's son. Jerry Douglas and I had driven up from Nashville as had The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Sam Bush and others who had known and made music with Doc and Merle.  We sang at the graveside; the next year the first festival took place in an open field on the Wilkes Community College Campus. The Eddie Merle Watson Memorial Festival. The audience sat on hay bales and we performed on the back of a flat- bed truck. The line up was Doc, Earle Scruggs, Chet Atkins, Mac Wiseman, Tony Rice, Marty Stuart, Jerry Douglas, myself and I think Sam that first year.  Both T. Michael Coleman and Jack Lawrence would have been there too as they were Docs band. It was magic and Doc felt happy as we carried the music on with the masters. There are tapes stashed somewhere of this first 'MerleFest.'" 

Many "big names" have headlined the festival, but none have drawn a crowd like Dolly Parton in 2001. Here she is with Doc and friends:

Bluegrass Returns

When I first saw the initial line-up when it was released in the winter I noted that there was an abundance of bluegrass artists. I thought this might be the result of what appeared to me to be a resurgence of bluegrass over the past few years as I felt we were in the midst of a renaissance. So, I decided to ask Steve Johnson, the Events Artists Relations Manager, and here is what he had to say: "The lineup this year is a retrospective of the last 30 years. Other than a few artists that we booked early on for 2017, everyone else has played the festival in the past and a lot of the artists from the earlier years were definitely bluegrass influenced. I think it was more of a coincidence than intentional programming, but serendipitous just the same, that we have do have a bluegrass focus this year with some 'important bluegrass artists.'"

Some of the artists are: Del McCoury, Claire Lynch, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Earls of Leicester, Steep Canyon Rangers, Mandolin Orange, Chatham County Line, the Steel Wheels, the Stray Birds, Sarah Jarosz, Sierra Hull, Marty Stuart, Jorma Kaukonen, Natalie McMaster, Synthian, the Kruger Brothers, Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale and too many others to list. I suggest you check the website for a complete listing as well as daily stage schedules.

Conscious or not, one of the festival's strengths is its programming. While it certainly has expanded its boundaries over the years, it also knows where its coming from. That happens to be   the mountains of western North Carolina.

Not too far away, Mountain Heart's Josh Schilling told me: "We have played MerleFest in the past, and it’s always such an honor to get to return. The camaraderie backstage, the legendary performances that have taken place through the years, on top of an incredible staff and talent lineup that gives so much back to the community, makes for an unmatched live music experience. We’ve shared the Watson stage with Bluegrass icon Tony Rice and Newgrass innovator John Cowan. These two artists and literally everything in between are from where our progressive acoustic sound has evolved. MerleFest has always done an unbelievable job of offering a platform for traditional artists as well as the boundary pushing Bluegrass, Americana, and Roots acts like us. To be coming back to the main stage with brand new material and a rejuvenated show is a dream come true for Mountain Heart!"


While the line-up maybe bluegrass heavy, there also promises to be some very special moments outside that genre. The Zac Brown Band makes its third appearance, closing out the festival on Sunday. After having taken the Americana world by storm, the Avett Brothers make a return visit as the Thursday headliner. They'll also be doing some other sets, including one featuring songs by Doc. This will especially be satisfying for me as I caught their very first MerleFest performance years ago. 

In between those two bookends will be jam band country: Leftover Salmon on Friday and Donna the Buffalo jamming it on Saturday night before the official Midnight Jam at the Walker Center. I expect lots of special guests to show up at each of those shows.

Not To Be Missed

But I expect most folks will be anticipating the four-hour Transatlantic Sessions (broken into two two-hour segments) on Friday featuring James Taylor, Jerry Douglas, Sarah Jarosz and many, many others. 

The Waybacks' Hillside Album Hour happens late Saturday afternoon and will be its 15th year. Be there early as the hillside where most folks sit fills up quickly to the brim and beyond. In fact, you just may want to spend the day at the Hillside Stage as the line-up that precedes the Waybacks is quite strong: 10 String Symphony, Sarah Jarosz, Peter Rowan, the Avetts doing Doc's songs, and Jim Lauderdale. The Kruger Brothers play after the Album Hour, so you could spend eleven hours just at this one stage and leave a happy person.

Attendees of the Album Hour know, there will be loads of special guests featured during their take on a classic rock album. The name of the album is not announced ahead of time, and that is part of the anticipation. But whatever it is, it is always a highlight. Such as last year when songs the Eagles' Greatest Hits was the album, yet they included "When Doves Cry/Purple Rain" to honor Prince who had just passed away.

However, up on the hill at the Walker Center on Saturday is what I believe to be a first, a record label showcase. Compass Records is holding a four-hour tour de force performance featuring many of its artists. The highlight being Alison Brown (who hosts) and Claire Lynch together. Along with John Doyle, other guests and perhaps the sleeper of the festival, I Draw Slow. I liked them a lot last year, and I hear from my buddy and fellow writer Chris Griffy that their new album is a knock-out. Here's what he has to say in his review for AXS about this Americana quintet from Dublin: "Led by the dual vocal and songwriting talents of siblings Dave and Louise Holden, whose vocals blend the easy harmonies of Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings with the family-band closeness of The Carter Family." This show ends immediately before the Album Hour begins and it promises to be one of the two or three delights of the weekend. By the way, I Draw Slow also plays other stand alone sets that weekend.

Speaking of sleepers, you know, the ones just on the verge, the ones you'll want to say you saw there first. This year there are three more. The newbies are Locust Honey, Front Country, and Mipso. I think you'll be quite pleased if you catch these young folks.

The blues also play an inegral part every year. Roy Bookbinder who learned the blues directly from Reverend Gary Davis curates and hosts a day of blues artists on Saturday at the Chris Austin Stage. You never know what treat he has in store, from the legendary Stefan Grossman who does not play that much in the States to one of fav discoveries a few years back, Eleanor Ellis. He also hosts the Sunday morning blues show that features nearly all of the folks who played the day before, each doing a song or two.

Speaking of Austin, again there will be the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, now in its 25th year. Previous winners have included Gillian Welch, Martha Scanlan and Laurelyn Dossett. So, you never know where the next gem may come from


New Artists, Merch and Autographs

There are always lots of new additions to the MerleFest family.  10 String Symphony, The Trailblazers, Swift Creek, Shadowgrass, Counterclockwise String Band, Dear Brother, Surry Line, and Mountain Heart are just a few of the newer names that I look forward in catching.

There is also a merch tent full of all kinds of goodies and practically all of the artists' recordings. Next to it is a conveniently located autograph tent where many of the performers do a meet, greet and signing. That, too, is on the schedule, along with last minute additions.

Things to Do Before You Come

1. Download the MerleFest app before the festival so you can see all the artists performing and create a personalized viewing itinerary.

2. MerleFest prohibits alcohol, tobacco products, and drugs. It's a family-friendly environment for the safety of everyone. It's also green, so recycle everything.

3. Mornings and evenings can be misty and chilly; midday can be very hot. Come prepared with a hat and/or sunscreen and layers for any temperature. Prepare for some rain, so check daily weather reports. You may also want to bring a collapsable chair as while there are some seating available at most stages, you may want your own.

4. Plan to visit the new MerleFest Museum located in the Visitors Center (near the red caboose). Learn about the festival’s rich, 30-year history.

5. Check the MerleFest website for directions and frequently asked questions. There is free parking in the Blue Lot (all lots are color coded) with a shuttle to the festival entrance. There are also paid lots closer to the grounds.

The Last Word

Finally, here's what the Steep Canyon Rangers, in unison, told me: "MerleFest is at the top of our festival wish list every year! It's not just North Carolina's finest festival, it's quite possibly the best Americana, Rootsy festival in the world. The memory of Merle and the legacy of Doc are what make this event so special. It's always a supreme honor to be included in the lineup!"