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North Carolina's Merlefest Again Draws Big Crowds

Attention live music lovers: Festival season is now underway, in cities both large and small. For example, until mid-September, the region between New York and North Carolina will feature at least one big event each weekend. You'll find all kinds of music represented at these gatherings: Jazz, Celtic, Blues, Country and Rock. There also are plenty of Roots music festivals scheduled. VOA's Katherine Cole reports on one of the largest, Merlefest, a four-day tribute to the late Merle Watson, son and musical partner of guitar legend Doc Watson.

Love of music is what caused more than 82,000 fans from as far away as Japan and Australia to converge on the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, during the last weekend of April. What draws these folks is the chance to see musicians like Bela Fleck, Emmylou Harris and John Prine. The memory of guitar player Merle Watson, and respect and love for his father, not a large paycheck, is what brought the performers, including Jefferson Airplane and Hot Tuna founder Jorma Kaukonen.

"Merlefest is just unbelievable," says Kaukonen. "I would really like to encourage everybody, no matter where they may be found in this world, to come to Wilkesboro and see Merlefest, because it's the greatest.

What is so special about this festival?

"It's a little bit hard to quantify without sounding sappy, but it just seems you get a really interesting community going on here," Kaukonen says. "We have great musicians from all over the world. Mostly from the United States, but from all over the world. And everybody just loves doing all the stuff that's required of us. And it's just really neat."

And when asked if there was anybody in particular that he really wanted to see at the festival?

" Hmmm, there were so many," he replied. "I was really thrilled to see Eliza Gilkyson, because I had never seen her live, and I was thrilled see that. The Lee Boys, gospel singers from Miami. Wow! Unbelievable! And just everybody. There are no bad shows here."

Eliza Gilkyson was one of the artists taking part in a very special Saturday evening performance. Called "Ribbon of Highway, Endless Skyway," it featured Eliza, Jimmy LaFave, Sarah Lee Guthrie and Johnny Irion, singing the songs of folksinger Woody Guthrie. Slaid Cleaves was also a part of the show. One of the songs he performed was "This Morning I Am Born Again," a song with lyrics by Woody Guthrie, but never put to music until Slaid did so a few years ago.

Another highlight of Merlefest 2006 was the chance to see legendary folk singer Pete Seeger perform. Saturday afternoon, the 87-year-old took the stage with his brother Mike, and grandson Tao Rodriguez-Seeger to pick a few songs, and talk about his life.

"I did not want a professional musician," Seeger said. "I liked to sing, but I thought the music business was full of hypocrisy. I did, though, go sing in the schools and in summer camps. And then some of the kids grew up and went to college. And I, during the 'frightened 50s' when the blacklist was in the popular music business, I just went from college to college to college to college to college to college to college. The most important job I ever did. I could have kicked the bucket in 1960. My job was done! After me, a whole bunch of young people came along: Bob Dylan, Phil Ochs, and a whole lot of others. And now, it's out of control."

Merlefest began in 1987 as a tribute to Merle Watson, who died in a farming accident two years earlier. Unlike many festivals, Merlefest is a non-profit event. The money raised goes back into the local community. Art Menius, Merlefest's Marketing Director, says that money is of major importance to the community.

"Merlefest started to fund the 'Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden For the Senses,'" he said. "But since then, it's become the primary fundraiser for Wilkes Community College. And over the first 18 years, the festival has contributed $5.7 million to the college."

And the local community benefits as well.

"It's a tremendous economic driver for the area," Menius says. "Each year, Merlefest has had an economic impact of $14-$15 million in northwestern North Carolina."

The news is even better this year. A preliminary estimate showed the 2006 edition will give an almost $16.5 million boost to the local economy.

In all, nearly 90 acts performed on Merlefest's 13 stages, with most playing more than once. But it is the opportunity to see the legendary Doc Watson in action that has always been one of Merlefest's biggest attractions. This year, the 83-year-old guitar wizard performed 11 times, sometimes solo, sometimes with a band. Doc says he always enjoys his reunion with Frosty Morn, Merle's band. The group gets together once a year to tell stories and play songs for a delighted crowd.