Thousands of people poured onto the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro for Merlefest which started on April 23 and ran through Sunday April 23. This festival has become very well known, gaining increasing popularity over the past few years.
Merlefest is a four-day festival that celebrates a surprisingly broad range of folk music, as well as some others. It has become a tradition for northwestern North Carolina, now celebrating its twenty-first year. This year was yet another success.
Merlefest is highlighted by the annual performance of Appalachian icon Doc Watson. Only a name like Doc Watson could attract so many big names in bluegrass, folk, and Americana. Past performers have included The Avett Brothers, Sam Bush, Dolly Parton, Allison Krauss, Vince Gill, and Willie Nelson. This year Sam Bush, Travis Tritt, Jerry Douglas, The Del McCoury Band, Emmylou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry Douglas, and many others attracted a large crowd eager for a weekend of fine music.
This year’s Merlefest did not let anyone down. The festival has changed a little bit over the years. An area was designated for vendors and shops at the event. Also, parking this year was a bit different. Organizers changed a few things around this year to provide for more standing room. Although there were not a lot of big headliners this year, those who attended were not disappointed. Lindsay Groce, a junior at WCU said, “There weren’t many big name bands, but there were many talented upcoming groups like the Carolina Chocolate Drops. We all had a great time.” Groce has attended every Merlefest since 1988. The event marks the beginning of the summer for her and many others. However, there is a story that is behind Merlefest that many people do not know. For years, Doc Watson has been known all around for his talent as a folk and bluegrass musician. He is a songwriter, singer, and guitarist who has achieved his fame through his unique flatpicking technique and his distinctive voice. Watson, who was born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, has long been a driving force in mountain music. Many people would go as far as to say that Doc Watson epitomizes all that is Appalachian music.
Bluegrass artists seem to have a sense of community, seemingly more than many other genres of music. That became evermore apparent following a disaster that struck the Watson family in 1985. Merle Watson, the son of Doc Watson, was killed in a farming accident. He had performed with his father for the past fifteen years. Fellow bluegrass artists who had come to know and love Watson desired to have a music festival that celebrated the life of Merle Watson. That festival affectionately became known as Merlefest.
Twenty one years later, this event brings $17 million to the region. Organizers have found ways to make it a greener event. This is in an attempt to set a good example of responsible environmental stewardship. It has become one of the biggest folk festivals in the country. Every year it commemorates the life of Merle Watson, and it reminds us how fragile life can be. It is also a great example of what the bluegrass community is all about. Lastly, it showcases the talent of one of the most renowned, influential, and legendary folk artists of all time-Doc Watson. His span of influence will forever be indispensible to American folk music.