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Merlefest Music Festival Still Drawing Crowds 18 Years After Inception

  • Katherine Cole

Merlefest, held on the grounds of a college in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, began in 1987 as a tribute to the late Merle Watson, son and performing partner, of folk music legend Doc Watson.

Merle Watson's memory remains the emotional core of this music festival. And the man responsible for keeping that spirit alive is his father, legendary guitar picker Doc Watson. At the age of 82, Doc Watson opened and closed the four-day festival, and performed about 10 sets in-between, enough to keep everyone happy.

The first Merlefest saw a handful of artists playing on the decks of two flatbed trucks before a crowd of less than 2,000 people. The crowd topped 82,000 in 2005, with performers appearing on 13 stages spread around the sprawling campus of Wilkes Community College.

Art Menius, Merlefest's Sponsorship and National Marketing Coordinator, says the sprawling campus is a testimony to Merlefest's success.

In keeping with the eclectic nature of Doc and Merle Watson's music, Merlefest doesn't feature just one type of music. Organizers prefer the term "Americana," which encompasses bluegrass, alternative country, folk, the blues, singer-songwriters, rock and country music. This year's lineup included Alison Krauss, Rodney Crowell, Sam Bush, and John Cowan, both of whom were longtime friends of Merle Watson.

Each year, the festival also brings new artists to the audience's attention, such as the all-girl string band Uncle Earl.

K.C. Groves helped form Uncle Earl, and plays mandolin and guitar, in addition to singing. Needless to say, she was thrilled to be performing at her first Merlefest.

"It makes me feel great! We've been working really heard for a few years now, and to see our hard work pay off is great! It's nice to be able to share this music that we love with people who get it, who understand it," she said.

But it's not just the paid performers who enjoy singing songs at Merlefest. Attendees are encouraged to bring their instruments, and take part in "picking parties" that pop up all around the festival, and its campgrounds. Those jams are a lot of fun for Winston-Salem, North Carolina resident Jeff Wall.

"The other night we were out at one of the campgrounds, and were playing around the campfire. I was playing with [fiddler] Casey Driesen, and there were a few other people there," he said. "And you look up, and across the campfire, there's Tim O'Brien playing. You get a chance to play with legends in the music, and it makes you push just that much harder. I wouldn't have this opportunity at the house, at home, to do this. Tim's not coming to my living room to play."

Tim O'Brien was quite a busy man during Merlefest 2005, performing on all four days of the festival. He played solo, guested with several artists, took part in a mandolin workshop, and also performed a wildly appreciated set with his sister, Mollie O'Brien.