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Nearly 100 Musical Acts Perform at Merlefest - 2003-05-28

The 16th annual Merlefest, a music festival held in celebration of the music of the late Merle Watson and his father, folk music legend Doc Watson, was presented late last month in the small town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

While more than 77,000 guests attended this year, the homey feel of the early days wasn't totally lost.

Peter Rowan, Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark and Emmylou Harris were among the nearly 100 musical acts performing on 13 stages during Merlefest 2003. That's quite a change from 1987, when the first festival saw a handful of artists playing on the decks of two flatbed trucks before a crowd of a couple of thousand people.

The festival, held on the grounds of a community college in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, began in 1987 as a tribute to bluegrass legend Doc Watson's son and performing partner Merle, who died in a farming accident two years earlier.

Mandolin player, fiddler and singer Sam Bush has been a part of every Merlefest since that first one, and says while the spirit of Merle Watson has always been a part of the music festival held in his honor, some things have changed.

"When this thing got started, it really was revolving around friends of Merle," Sam Bush said. "The first couple, everybody who played on it knew Merle. But it has grown into the premier festival of the southeast."

Cole: So you've seen it change a lot over the years.

Bush: Oh yeah. Now it's big business. But still, a lot of people that play on this festival were friends of Merle and Doc. And they've helped a lot of people.

By helping, Sam Bush means more than "entertained." Merlefest is a non-profit event, and the money raised goes to help the local community college to make numerous site improvements, and fund scholarships for its students.

Despite the festival's growth, Merle Watson's memory remains the emotional core of the weekend, and the man responsible for keeping that spirit alive is his father, 80-year-old Doc Watson.

The stage acted like a fountain of youth for the folksinger, and the years seemed to slip away as the weekend went on. Doc seemed especially "on" during Saturday afternoon's reunion with the remaining member's of Merle's band "Frosty Morn."

As you'll hear, Doc not only picked lead guitar when the band played the traditional gospel song, Walking in Jerusalem, he sang lead on the verses, and also the bass part in the harmony chorus. In keeping with the eclectic nature of Doc Watson's music, Merlefest isn't strictly a bluegrass festival. Instead, it mixes in gospel, folk, country and blues. Widely regarded as one of the country's finest festivals of American music, Merlefest is also a homecoming of sorts for both musicians and fans. Unlike Sam Bush, who's played at every Merlefest, fan Becky Johnson's attendance record is almost as good.

Johnson: 14 [festivals] for me.

Cole: What brings you back year after year?

Johnson: The camaraderie. The friendships, the fellowship, the music!

Cole: There are 13 stages here. How on earth do you decide what you want to see?

Johnson: Oh, it is very difficult! I have what I call my 'little hit list.' What I try to do in the morning, or the night before, I try to scratch little numbers there and priority of where I'm going to go the next day. It doesn't always work, but that's the plan!

Plans for the 17th Merlefest are already underway. To find out more, visit their website. That's where you'll also find information about release of the first two Merlefest recordings, titled Merlefest Live!, featuring 19 performances from the 2002 festival, including Doc Watson and legendary banjo picker Earl Scruggs' duet, Careless Love.