MerleFest
Wilkesboro, N.C.

MerleFest, the sprawling four-day Americana music festival held each April at Wilkes Community College, is what outdoor music festivals should aspire to. It is professionally run and offers hundreds of performances. Many artists play together in combinations that will never happen elsewhere.

The festival is held in honor of the late Merle Watson, the son and musical partner of Doc Watson who was killed in an accident in 1985. Since the first show in 1988, it has grown into a celebration of traditional music and the many forms that have grown from it. Doc, who played the festival each of its first 25 years until his death in May 2012, called his and Merle's music "tradition-plus." Doc's grandson Richard Watson, and musical partners like David Holt and members of Merle’s side band Frosty Morn play frequently during the weekend.

Other performers include top touring acts from Americana, progressive acoustic, bluegrass, country and rock; bluegrass mainstays; and up-and-coming groups and artists. In recent years, the festival has presented a mainstream country band as Thursday night's headliner, and a classic rock band to top the Friday night bill. Some acts play only a single evening or Sunday afternoon show on the main stage, but many bands perform several times during the weekend, and some return to MerleFest year after year.

As bands set up on the Watson Stage, MerleFest's main stage,
other acts keep the music going on the Cabin Stage, to the right (and below).

The Chris Austin Songwriting contest draws hundreds of entries and has been a boon to the careers of Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Martha Scanlan and others. Competitions for guitar, banjo and mandolin players that had been a part of the festival since its early days were to be discontinued as of the 2014 edition in favor of additional showcases for youth performers and up-and-coming acts. There are also raffles for musical instruments, ticket packages for the following year’s festival, and other goodies.

MerleFest draws 60,000 to 70,000 people over the course of the weekend. It’s an orderly crowd of diverse age. Local school groups are admitted for free on Friday, bringing about 3,200 kids in grades 5, 8 and 12 to the festival. The weekend’s headliner plays Saturday night, making it the most crowded evening (Dolly Parton headlined in 2001, contributing significantly to the weekend’s record attendance of more than 77,000).

Alcohol is not allowed, though coolers are OK. Backpacks, coolers, chair bags and the like get a quick search on the way in, with more focus on keeping glass out of the grounds than anything else. Free overnight storage for chairs and other gear is available on the festival grounds, and is well run. Shuttle buses operated by local Boy Scout troops run constantly, ferrying thousands day and night between the festival and off-campus parking lots.

Merle Haggard and the Strangers close the 2014 festival at the Watson Stage Sunday afternoon.

The main stage area consists of the Watson Stage, and the Cabin Stage (shown above), a log cabin next to the main stage where performers play on the porch between sets on the Watson Stage. The area holds several thousand people, with 48 rows of reserved seats and acres behind them for camp chairs. General admission ticket-holders typically stake out a spot with chairs and coolers at the start of the day, and freely leave them unattended as they head for shows at any of a dozen other stages. Some have second camp chairs, cushions or blankets they carry with them. Until 4:30 p.m., anyone can sit in a reserved seat but must move if the ticket-holder shows up and wants it.
In 2013, the festival replaced a lone video screen to the left of the Watson Stage (shown at the top of the page) with three large screens to provide images to the entire Watson Stage area.

That's Doc and David Holt above on stage at the Traditional Music tent in 2009. Doc drew a large crowd wherever he played.

There are stages just about wherever they could find room for one among the campus’ hills, which provide an amphitheater effect at several sites. From the Creekside Stage on one end of campus to the Hillside Stage on the other is a reasonably good hike when you’re trying to get there between shows. It’s also uphill headed toward Hillside. The Walker Center auditorium, where Saturday’s Midnight Jam is held in addition to daytime shows Friday and Saturday, is a nice respite during the heat of the day. But as space is limited indoors, it can be difficult to get into some Walker Center shows.

For any show, if you can tear yourself away from the one you’re watching to get to the next one early, you’ll stand a better chance of getting a choice seat.

Except for the Dance Tent, at left, and the songwriters’ showcase in the Alumni Lounge, the smaller stages shut down for the Friday and Saturday evening shows on the Watson and Cabin stages.

The open lawn at the Americana stage, below, can leave people jockeying for shade during midday shows.

Hillside, one of the festival's main stages, below, is true to its name. Several rows of plastic chairs on the pavement in front of the stage fill quickly, and the hillside fills for big shows.

A highlight of the festival since 2008 has been the Hillside Album Hour with The Waybacks and Friends, which is a rendition of a classic rock album from start to finish. The Hillside stage area, below left, starts to fill early for the Saturday afternoon show. At right below are The Waybacks joined by Kym Warner and Jens Kruger at far left, and vocalist Mike Farris at right in the front row of performers, for the 2013 rendition of Bob Dylan and The Band's "Before the Flood."

Several top acts play the bowl-shaped amphitheater at Creekside, below, during the festival. Doc's last public performance was at the Spirit of Sunday show at Creekside for MerleFest 2012 (the photo of him below is from Creekside on Sunday morning in 2011).

The Plaza Stage, below left, and the Pickin' Tent stay busy with local bands and players from everywhere - so busy that the jamming spills out of the tent and onto the lawn. The Plaza is also a busy crossroads, with the Austin Stage in Alumni Hall indoors to the left, the Mayes Pit workshop auditorium indoors to the right and foot traffic to and from the Hillside Stage passing by.

Catfish Keith, left, was part of the Greatest Acoustic Blues Show on Earth at the Austin Stage in 2011.

The Little Pickers' area, which is at the far back of the Watson Stage area, offers children's games and crafts, storytelling and music. In addition to three Youth Showcase performances during the weekend, which children 16 and younger can apply to perform in, the festival books professional children's acts for the Little Pickers' Stage.

The length of the rear of the main stage area is occupied by a food concessions tent, where several campus and community nonprofit groups sell a variety of food and drinks. Additional food and drink vendors are elsewhere on campus. Adjacent to the food tent, at the far end of the Watson Stage area, top companies sell acoustic musical instruments and accessories in another tent. Back at stage right, a large tent houses CD and band T-shirt sales.

A separate vendor area offers T-shirts, caps and similar MerleFest ware, high-quality arts and crafts, such as handmade clothing, pottery and lithographs (plus some lesser-quality fare), a tent with Internet access, and many other shopping opportunities.

Some RV and tent space is available on campus, but thousands camp for free in and around a city park that also has free parking along an old airstrip that is served by shuttle buses. Nearby, the YMCA offers a lawn for family camping (at right) – with no alcohol allowed and quiet hours for those who are not interested in partying or picking all night.

Additional camping in the area includes campgrounds at the W. Kerr Scott Dam and Reservoir, which is about a mile west on NC 268, the main road past the festival and through town.


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