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Part 1 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

Merle Watson

April 12, 2012. Leading up to MerleFest, check the HCPress.com every day for the 10-part series on the festival, which began in 1988 as a one-time fundraiser for a campus garden and a memorial for Merle Watson. MerleFest still serves as a community fundraiser and memorial, yet it has grown into one of the premiere music festivals in the world.

Part 1

Reflections on MerleFest


David Holt playing rhythm on a paper bag; John Hartford tap dancing on his amplified step-a-tune; Chet Atkins explaining his picking technique; Tony Rice and Peter Rowan jamming with Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, John Cowan and Jerry Douglas; all the artists singing “Tribute to Merle” with
Doc on harmonica—Music, Moments and Memories of the first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival. 

It began in 1988 as a one-time Wilkes Community College Endowment Corporation event to raise funds for a campus garden for a rural North Carolina Community college. A fine group of musicians donated their talents to memorialize a fallen friend and support his musician father. By 2011 the festival attracted nearly 80,000 participants over four days to hear 90 musical acts on 14 stages. How did MerleFest begin and how did it evolve into the greatest annual celebration of “traditional plus” music in the world and a fundraiser that has an economic impact of more than $10 million to the region?

Folks lean on a fence post during the early years of MerleFest.

MerleFest is the result of a serendipitous combination of individuals with vision, talent and perseverance. First among them is Frederick William Townes IV, nicknamed “B.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, “B” was a Wilkes Community College (WCC) horticulture instructor with a grand vision to develop the grounds of the two-year public institution. The campus was a blank slate of acres of lawn and a few trees, so “B” wanted to develop theme gardens to enhance the education of his students with hands-on planting that would create a variety of landscapes for them to study. He developed “The Garden Master Plan,” which included a walking trail and a wildflower walk, a Japanese garden, an evergreen garden and a garden for the blind, which would emphasize aromatic plants and feature Braille identification signs. The college budget was tight, so “B” took full advantage of a chance to present his fundraising plan at a WCC trustees’ meeting. “B”’s talk resulted in enthusiasm, publicity, several donations and the creation of the WCC Gardens Board. A member of the board, Ala Sue Wyke, knew Bill Young, a close friend of Doc Watson, and suggested asking Doc to play a “one-time, one-night, one-man show” to raise funds for the garden for the blind. In October 1987 Ala Sue, Bill and “B” met with Doc who generously agreed to do the concert in the John A. Walker Community Center (now referred to as the Walker Center) and had a November date available for the event. “B” admits freely to his naivety when he told Doc, “Great!” At this meeting Doc asked that the garden for the blind be named in honor of his late son Merle, and so it became the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses.

Mark O' Connor, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas

Back at the college, Bud Mayes, manager of the Walker Center, and President David Daniel informed “B” that a concert in November was totally unrealistic. Other concerts at the venue were planned a year ahead and did not fill the 1,100 seats. Bill and “B” had to meet with Doc again to tell him that the November concert could not happen. A few days later Doc called to say that his daughter, Nancy, and his wife, RosaLee, came up with the idea of Doc and some of his and Merle’s musician friends playing a festival at the end of April 1988. While touring, Doc would call Bill Young and tell him about various artists, including Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman and Sam Bush, who had committed to playing in memory of Merle for free. Bill wrote these names down on a napkin and handed them to “B.” “B,” a novice at festival planning, was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. Bill suggested another meeting with Doc and RosaLee to work out details. At this meeting, since so many artists wanted to play, it was decided to make the one-night concert into a two-day festival and to name it the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival. With Bud Mayes’ blessing, the event was put on the calendar for Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, with all proceeds going to the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses.

The ticket office at the beginning

As Doc promoted this event during his concert tour, one gentleman heard about it and wanted to become personally involved in helping to make it happen. Jim Rouse gave his name to Doc on a slip of paper, which Doc put in his pocket. As RosaLee was doing laundry one day, she came upon this slip of paper and called “B” to recommend that he give Jim a call to see how he could help. When “B” called Jim, Jim asked, “What is it that I can do to help you?” “B” explained that he really needed a monument to place at the Garden for the Senses recognizing that it was established in memory of Merle. Jim gladly made plans to get this monument in place. From that point forward, Jim has been involved in promoting the festival. He has also become a valued and trusted personal friend to Doc. 

RosaLee suggested having a workshop as well where artists could talk about their instruments and share ideas about their musical styles. This added a second venue to the festival; the workshop would be held in the Pit, now known as the Mayes Pit-Cohn Auditorium. At this point “B” admitted that he was not musically inclined and asked Doc, “What is a festival?” and “What kind of music do you play?” Needless to say, “B” was on a steep learning curve.

One night “B” woke up in a bit of a panic…Continued on Saturday!

Story and picture courtesy of MerleFest

For more information, peruse our festivals page or click to www.merlefest.org.

To view this year’s lineup, click to http://merlefest.org/Lineup/.

To view this year’s stage schedules, click to http://merlefest.org/Schedules/.