MerleFest celebrates its 35th anniversary and the 100th birthday of Doc Watson

By Grant Golden 

April 21, 2023

Celebrating its 35th anniversary this year, Wilkesboro’s MerleFest is one of the longest running, and most attended roots music festivals in the country. Founded in 1988 in memory of Merle Watson, the son of legendary bluegrass guitarist Doc Watson, MerleFest is ingrained into Wilkesboro’s culture, with an annual economic impact of over $10 million for the small town. Over 75,000 attendees flock to Wilkes Community College campus each April for a family-friendly event of fresh, progressive roots music. This year’s event, held from April 27 to 30, brings Chris and Rich Robinson of The Black Crowes, The Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, Marcus King, Tanya Tucker, and many more, celebrating what would have been Doc Watson’s 100th birthday.

Doc Watson performing at the first MerleFest in 1988. Courtesy of MerleFest

“Doc Watson and his family have done so much for this community over the years” said MerleFest Festival Director Wes Whitson. “He’s been gone since 2012 but this festival is still living on and because of him we are still making a difference for kids in our community.”

Alongside raising funds for the Wilkes Community College Foundation, the festival also founded the Doc Watson Student Emergency Fund, which raises money for students with financial hardships, allowing them continued education. 

It all began in 1988, when WCC Horticulture professor Frederick “B” Townes approached the iconic bluegrass guitarist with the idea of holding a benefit festival for Watson’s recently deceased son, Merle, on campus to raise funds for the WCC Gardens. That one-day festival held on the back of a flatbed truck has since blossomed into one of the largest, most monumental roots music festivals in the United States, including 12 stages and nearly 100 artists.

Frederick “B” Townes and legendary bluegrass/folk musician and songwriter Doc Watson. Courtesy of MerleFest

Throughout MerleFest’s 35 years, esteemed artists like Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, John Prine, Earl Scruggs and countless others have performed, frequently playing with other artists for unique collaborations and on-the-fly jam sessions. Grammy Award-winning songwriter Jim Lauderdale has performed at 23 MerleFests throughout his illustrious career and calls the festival “life changing” for artists.

“My first year at MerleFest I was going to sit in with Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys [for a few songs], but they informed me that Ralph’s son was sick and asked if I could go on. So after a quick, in some ways terrifying rehearsal, I [performed]. It’s one of the greatest days of my life,” he said. 

Jim Lauderdale performing at MerleFest 2022. Photo: Courtesy of MerleFest

Lauderdale recalls performing alongside one of his musical inspirations, mandolinist David Grisman, and how many doors these collaborations can open for an artist. After his Stanley sit-in, Lauderdale went on to collaborate with legendary lyricist Robert Hunter (Grateful Dead), and wrote a collaborative Grammy-winning bluegrass album with Ralph Stanley. Subsequent MerleFests brought him together with lifelong collaborators Donna The Buffalo, and even led to several partnerships with Elvis Costello both in-studio and on live performances.

“When I’m standing on that stage and looking out at all of these people…it’s just so touching to think of how one man, how one person can affect thousands and thousands of people’s lives in so many ways,” Lauderdale said. 

And in many ways MerleFest serves as an embodiment of Doc’s ethos. Each year there’s a concerted effort to highlight roots acts of all creed, class, and color. Whether it be bluegrass, folk, Americana, or newer contemporary takes on roots music, MerleFest opens its doors to the masses.

“Doc coined a term called ‘Traditional Plus’ many years ago,” Whitson said. “Long ago in his career folks would ask him questions regarding his music and what he chose to share with the world. He said that he and Merle played ‘Traditional Plus’ music…that’s ‘traditional’ plus whatever else they wanted to play. And we carry that very same formula over with MerleFest. We are a roots-based, traditional-traditional based festival…but we’ve always strived to add variety and make sure there’s something for everybody.”

Part of that variety includes a regular rotation of some of the most exciting up-and-coming acts in the roots music scene. This year’s undercard boasts names like Joshua Ray Walker, Yasmin Williams, mandolin wunderkind Wyatt Ellis, and countless others. But one of the marquee events of MerleFest, year in and year out, proves to be the esteemed MerleFest Band Competition. For many young artists, a competition win can propel them to national stardom. Each year, participants perform throughout the day on Saturday for a chance to play later in the day on the Cabin Stage in front of thousands of MerleFest attendees.

Durand Jones & The Indications performing at MerleFest 2022. Courtesy of MerleFest

Jesse Iaquinto of Asheville’s Fireside Collective recalls the importance of their first MerleFest and how winning the competition opened a cavalcade of professional doors. “We’d been going for around two years at that point,” Jesse said of their 2016 win. “We really needed some sort of accolade to get this project off the ground. When you’re booking stuff a lot of times you don’t get to meet these people or perform directly for them. You’ve got your bio and that’s it, and none of us were like competition fiddle players or anything…so we’re just trying to put on a show that’s gonna pull people in and keep them captivated.” 

Fireside Collective’s progressive blend of bluegrass captivated the right crowd. That year’s competition performance not only landed them a win and mainstage performance, but also helped them meet future publicists and rub shoulders with stars like Allison Krauss, Chris Thile, and more.

Boone, North Carolina’s The Nude Party performing at MerleFest 2022. Photo: Matt Guerrant

Whether someone makes their way to MerleFest for the legendary acts like Tanya Tucker or the upstart outlaw alt-folk tunes of folks like Tejon Street Corner Thieves, the differentiator of MerleFest is the certainty that they’re there for the love of music. There’s no alcohol or tobacco allowed at the festival, community tents are available for attendees of all skill levels to pick and play instruments together and, if you make your way to the offsite campgrounds, you may just catch some award-winning acts jamming alongside the stars of tomorrow.

“I’ve met people from all over the world at MerleFest,” Iaquinto said. “It’s like a pilgrimage, y’know? It’s powerful to see this genre of music promote community.”

MerleFest in 1989 after the construction of the main stage dedicated to Doc and Merle Watson. Courtesy of MerleFest

Throughout the three and a half decades of MerleFest, that sense of community has remained at its core. From the days of acoustic jams on a flatbed truck to becoming one of the largest music festivals in the United States, the spirit of Doc Watson is alive and well in the hills of Wilkesboro.

MerleFest takes place April 27-30, 2023 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Learn more about the festival and information on tickets.

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