By Lane Claffee
April 22, 2017
This year marks the 30th anniversary of MerleFest, America’s top roots-based music festival. Founded in 1988, in memory of Doc Watson’s late son, Eddy Merle Watson, the festival takes place on the campus of Wilkes Community College every year and, to this day, remains true to the values it was founded on: to be all about the music, moments, and memories it creates.
MerleFest was created with the concept of “traditional plus” music in mind. The best explanation of what “traditional plus” is comes from a quote by the late, great Doc Watson: “When Merle and I started out, we called our music ‘traditional plus’, meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region, plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play.” With music ranging from Americana and blues to country, the “traditional plus” mentality is still an important part of MerleFest.
The festival curated many veteran artists that best encapsulate its inclusive attitude toward music. “Being that this is number thirty, we specifically went with more repeat artists that represent programming over the last twenty-nine years,” said director Ted Hagaman. Returning artists include Marty Stewart, Sam Bush, and Jerry Douglas, all of whom played at the very first Merlefest. Other big names include: Del McCoury Band, The Avett Brothers, Zac Brown Band, and James Taylor, who is appearing for the first time.
There are many ways to participate in MerleFest than just seeing live music. Whether it’s shopping for MerleFest memorabilia in the centrally located shops, checking out the diverse food vendors, or learning how to jam at the Jam Camp, there’s no shortage of opportunities to be a part of the festival’s vibrant community.
One new attraction this year is the debut of the Merle Museum. “This will be a great way for folks to learn about the history of the festival and see photos and video of the past thirty years,” said Hagaman. The Merle Museum will be free to all attendees. They will also be offering for the first time a backstage tour, though it requires an advance ticket purchase.
It seems that the only thing that’s truly changed is the size of the event itself, going from two to 13 stages and 2,500 participants to over 75,000 in 2016. It brings in almost $10 million to Wilkes County every year and is the primary fundraising event for the WCC Foundation, which has raised over $14 million for scholarships, capital projects, technology, and faculty training at Wilkes Community College.
Overall, MerleFest returns for its 30th year as a bigger version of what it’s always been: a safe, family-friendly festival. With a more expansive array of memorabilia and food vendors, along with new attractions like the Merle Museum, Merlefest 2017 will surely be a great celebration of another year of music, moments, and memories.