There's no denying the festival's grown a bit since its start. The first Merlefest, held in 1988, attracted just 4,000 fans who gathered to watch Merle's friends jamming on a few flatbed trucks. Today, Merlefest lasts for four days, with more than 100 performers playing on 15 stages.
This isn't a festival that easily falls into any one music category. At any given time, you can find a stage with bluegrass, folk, gospel, blues, country, Celtic and jazz being played. The Saturday night headliner this year was Elvis Costello, who performed with a band that included Merlefest stalwarts Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan and Jim Lauderdale.
The decision to offer up such a varied lineup was a wise one. Attendance over the festival's four days exceeded 76,000. Last year, the estimated regional economic impact was over $12.8 million. Merlefest is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, and some of the revenue stays at the College, providing scholarships or going toward the construction of new classrooms.
Festival Director Ted Hagaman explains how Merlefest helps the local community, too.
"So many people in the community count on the festival," he said. "For instance, all of our food vending is done by non-profits: Churches, schools, other community organizations. They count on this festival to provide funding for all the projects they do throughout the year. A good example is our shuttle [bus] service. It is provided by the Boy Scouts. From that, they are able to take money and send Scouts all over the world."
Even with a lineup that included fan favorites like Sam Bush, Steve Martin, Taj Mahal and The Avett Brothers, it's the chance to see the legendary Doc Watson in action that has always been Merlefest's biggest attraction. This year, the 87-year-old guitar wizard performed six times, including a bluegrass set, a reunion with Merle's band Frosty Morn, and a rockabilly set affectionately known as "Docabilly." What does that sound like? Here's a version of "Workingman Blues" recorded during the 2008 festival.
This year, "Docabilly" included an added treat. Musician Matt Glaser, Artistic Director of the American Roots Music Program at the Berklee College Of Music, was on hand to award Doc Watson an honorary degree.
"Doc told an interviewer once, 'Whether I'm playing for myself or for an enthusiastic audience, I can get the same emotions I had when Dad got me that first guitar.' A true entertainer, I think, doesn't ever lose that feeling," Glaser said. "And so, for sharing that feeling with the entire world and for his astonishing contributions to American music, we proudly present Doc Watson with the honorary Doctorate of Music degree from Berklee College of Music."
"When I was determined to earn a living for my darling wife and two children, the music business was awful slow during the folk revival. But I stuck with it," Watson said. "It's a wonder I didn't get so homesick I'd go home from New York City. But I didn't. I decided I'd better stick it out and see if I could get started. I'm thankful that when I came into this world, the good Lord gave me the talent that I have to learn and to love music."
Plans for Merlefest 2011 are already underway. You can get information by visiting Merlefest.org. That's also where you can find out about the Festivalink.net releases of live sets by Merlefest performers, including a version of "Bonaparte's Retreat" featuring Doc Watson with Sam Bush, John Cowan, T. Michael Coleman and a few other friends.