In recent years, MerleFest, presented by Window World and slated for April 28–May 1, has drawn an increasingly international audience to the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. While the iconic festival’s mix of “Traditional Plus” programming has gained worldwide attention, an enormous increase in attendance from the rugged Canadian province of Saskatchewan has surprised some in Wilkesboro.
“We’ve seen a 1,000 percent increase in visitors from Saskatchewan over the last three years,” says Steve Johnson, artist relations manager for MerleFest.
This year, over 30 visitors from Saskatchewan will arrive at MerleFest for the annual celebration of the best in North American roots music. Saskatchewan has a population of just over 1 million, about the same as Rhode Island, in an area almost the size of Texas.
The Saskatchewan group attending this year includes festival organizers, musicians, fans and music industry representatives.
“It speaks to how much we truly honor the music that was born out of this region,” says Tracy Lalonde of the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Festival, on her third visit. “My first trip took me to landmarks that were in iconic songs I’d heard since I started following the music and that blew me away. When we can connect to the music like that it allows us to appreciate it even more.”
“They started coming from Northern Lights three years ago,” says Johnson. “In 2013, we hosted a small group that came on a mission to learn about MerleFest after I received a nice introduction letter from the group. Who knew it would come to this?”
“We just introduced ourselves as people who had been involved with these music festivals at the Ness Creek Site for a long time and that we would appreciate any chance to get up close to see how things were done at MerleFest,” remembers Patton MacLean, one of the first group from Saskatchewan.
The letter landed on Steve Johnson’s desk in January 2013.
“Frankly, I didn’t know what to think,” says Johnson. “They said they were coming to MerleFest to check things out. We had some mutual musician friends who had played up there and loved it. I agreed to meet them before the festival. We toured the campus, and they met some MerleFest team members.”
The visitors invited Johnson to return the visit. In 2014, Johnson took them up on the offer, flew into Saskatoon on a Thursday night in August, and drove three hours north to the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp and Festival.
“It was a bit unsettling because we drove for three hours and only went through a couple of small towns. When we hit the dirt road and the big forest, I started to wonder what I had gotten myself into. But when we got there, I found this beautiful festival site carved out of the meadows and forest of evergreens and silver birch. Backstage I saw a campfire area under spruce trees with all of the festival musicians picking in a moonlit jam. It was something else – a great night of picking, featuring some of the artists you will see at MerleFest in 2016.”
Johnson has since made multiple visits to festivals in Saskatchewan where he first saw some artists slated to perform at MerleFest this year: master storyteller Bonnie Logan, folk duo Kacy and Clayton, old-time trio In With The Old, bluegrass adventurers The Slocan Ramblers, and Americana soulsters The Brothers Landreth.
“Saskatchewan has a rich music scene, especially considering its size. Saskatoon reminds me of my hometown of Asheville in some ways with lots of places to hear live music and lots of musicians working on different projects. A lot of great music passes through, too. It’s a good town for a music fan,” says Johnson.
A shortlist of Western North Carolina musicians who have visted Saskatchewan in recent years includes Tellico, Town Mountain (with Jon Stickley), Steep Canyon Rangers, Mark Bumgarner, and, most recently, Jim Lauderdale.
Of her experiences at the Ness Creek Site, Anya Hinkle of Tellico says, “The Northern Lights Bluegrass Festival is one of the most memorable experiences I’ve had as a performer. The students, the performers, the setting, the food … it was amazing.”
“It’s a beautiful place with some of the friendliest, most welcoming folks I’ve ever played with. We’ve always had a great time in Saskatchewan,” says Town Mountain’s Jesse Langlais, who in 2012 suggested that his new Canadian friends visit MerleFest and Western North Carolina for the first time.
Is there an aim for this sudden rise in visitors from this relatively wild and rural Canadian province?
“We’ve had a lot of musicians from North Carolina come visit us, and a lot of musicians from Saskatchewan have been having playing down in North Carolina. We want that to continue,” says Gord Olson, co-founder of the Ness Creek Music Festival and a first-time visitor to MerleFest in 2016.
“The bottom line is that it feels like a sisterhood,” says Lalonde, currently director of the Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music Camp. “We hope some of our N.C. friends will consider visiting us and experiencing our festivals, our hospitality and our own brand of traditional music.”
“I think there are a lot of similarities between this part of the world and our part of the world. If people like playing music and building community together, that’s a good place to start,” says MacLean, co-founder of the NorthAmericana Concert Series and now a volunteer at MerleFest.
“Well, they are coming, and we’re excited to welcome them,” says MerleFest’s Johnson.
For more information on Northern Lights Bluegrass and Old Tyme Music (http://
MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson. MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles. The festival hosts a diverse mix of artists on its 13 stages during the course of the four-day event. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.