It’s all about good music and community. A preview of MerleFest 2016

By Kelli Raulerson

April 12, 2016

MerleFest is unlike anything else. Void of the gimmicks and tactics employed by most festivals these days, MerleFest remains true to the one thing the others don’t: music. Held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, MerleFest will take over the Wilkes Community College campus beginning April 28 for a weekend packed with some of Americana, folk and bluegrass’ biggest acts.

We had the chance to catch up with Festival Director Ted Hagaman to capture the five reasons why you shouldn’t miss MerleFest this year.

Family comes first. Founded in 1988 in memory of the son of Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson, the festival celebrates its twenty-ninth year at the end of April. With a diverse lineup that includes old-time, bluegrass, Americana and rock, the festival is a celebration of the traditional music it was founded upon. To maintain the family atmosphere, kids under 12 are free (with a ticketed parent). The festival also offers free parking and runs a complimentary shuttle throughout the weekend.

Earl Scruggs & Doc Watson at Merlefest 2007 by Daniel Coston

“One of the things that impresses me most about this festival is that it’s truly a tradition,” explains Ted. You see families who began coming 29 years ago with the first event and kept returning. Now their kinds are grown and are bringing their kids. It’s a neat thing to watch– the reunions that occur not only amongst the fans but also with volunteers and artists alike.”

It’s all about the music. MerleFest has been able to maintain its revered spot amongst artists and fans because it’s one of the few festivals in today’s circuit that is truly all about the music. Cultivating a unique festival culture, MerleFest still holds workshops where artists and fans can ‘jam’ alongside one another. So while other festivals may offer gimmicks or bigger parties to reel you in, MerleFest keeps it simple by focusing on the music. This year’s lineup boasts some of the best in music including John Oates, The Wood Brothers, Dave Rawlings Machine, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Brandi Carlile, Steep Canyon Rangers, and many more.

“At MerleFest, everyone is out and about together”, shares Ted. “You might walk up to a pickin’ circle and see artists and fans sitting alongside each other pickin’ their hearts out. It’s truly a unique atmosphere.”

Brandi Carlile FloydFest 2015. Photo Credit: Drea Atkins

Music. Moments. Memories. As the festival’s tagline, MerleFest obviously wants to ensure everyone who attends leaves with a positive experience. In his 10 years as festival director, Ted shares his thoughts on what stands out most for him when considering music, moments and memories:

Favorite artist on this year’s lineup: “That’s a loaded question,” laughs Ted. “And tough to answer with 13 stages and over 100 bands– it wouldn’t be fair to narrow it down to just one. But this year, I am excited to see Jason Isbell having caught an amazing performance by him earlier this year at Appalachian; also Australian guitarist Tommy Emmanuel, since we’ve been trying to get him here for years; of course festival favorite Old Crow Medicine Show; and John Prine – what a legend! It’s hard to name just a few when everyone is great!”

Jason Isbell Photo: David McClister

Favorite moment of the festival: “That’s an easy one,” he explains. “We love standing at the gate on Thursday afternoon at 2:30 p.m. to watch the crowd come in. Everyone is so excited and in a way kind of a relief because you’ve done a lot of work to get to that point. We’re just ready for it to happen!”

Favorite memory: “That would go back to the last year that Doc was here,” shares Ted. “There were a couple of times that weekend where you could tell the audience knew he may not be with us for a long time and they were lucky to share in those moments with him. See Doc on stage and the appreciation and respect that everyone had for him– it’s a memory I’ll have for a long time.”

Community is alive and well. Throughout the year MerleFest has over 4400 volunteers from around the world that work to make the festival happen. Over the course of the festival weekend they have approximately 700 volunteers on hand to make sure everything goes as planned. It’s this community of volunteers, many of which return year after year, that keeps the family-feel alive each year.

Photo by Bob Alexander

“If we can make it to mid-day Friday, the festival will take on a life of its own,” explains Ted. “At that point we can sit back and let it happen. The festival is running because the volunteers are making it happen. All of our volunteers have a deep passion for this festival and you can really feel that as you walk around the grounds.”

In the end, it’s all for a good cause. All of the profits that are earned through this festival go to provide scholarships, capital projects, training and technology for students at Wilkes Community College.

“The biggest gratitude I get from being a part of this festival is that the work we do truly makes a difference in people’s lives,” shares Ted. “In a lot of cases, these folks could not attend college or gain the training necessary to find jobs if it wasn’t for this festival. It’s a real good feeling to know you’re a part of something like this. And we get to have a lot of fun along the way.”


MerleFest happens in Wilkesboro, North Carolina from April 28 through May 1.

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