April 24, 2012. This is the last article in the10-part series on MerleFest, which began in 1988 as a one-time fundraiser for a college campus garden and a memorial for Merle Watson. The festival still serves as a community fundraiser and memorial, yet it has grown into one of the premiere music festivals in the world.
Reflections on MerleFest
Tornados threatened Wilkes County on the Wednesday night before MerleFest 2011 began. Volunteers and staff scrambled to take down signage and roll up tent sides in preparation for the worst. RV campers were encouraged to sleep in the Randolph Hall gym. Fortunately, no tornados appeared, and the show went on without a hitch with four days of beautiful weather and a diverse and fully-loaded schedule of artists. An amazing lineup (considered the best ever by many MerleFest Facebook fans) included Doc and Richard Watson; Randy Travis; The Doobie Brothers (with newest member John Cowan); Lyle Lovett; Zac Brown Band; Robert Plant and Band of Joy that included MerleFest favorites Darrell Scott, Buddy Miller, Byron House and Patti Griffith; Nashville Bluegrass Band; Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks; Sonny Landreth; Jerry Douglas featuring Omar Hakim and Viktor Krauss; Tim O’Brien; Alison Brown Quartet with Stuart Duncan; Del McCoury Band; The Kruger Brothers; and many more. The Waybacks hosted the fourth consecutive Hillside Album Hour by playing the Allman Brothers’ classic recording, “Eat a Peach,” in its entirety, along with a version of “Whipping Post” for good measure. Joining them were their good pals Joan Osborne, John R. Burr, Larry Atamanuik and The Wailin’ Jennys.
For more than 10 years MerleFest tried to get Randy Travis to the festival, at a special request from Doc and RosaLee. His appearance in 2011 was special to Doc on many levels. Most significant to Doc was when Randy traveled with him to Boone for a short visit with RosaLee, who was unable to attend the festival due to health concerns.
A “Tribute to John Hartford” included The John Hartford String Band, Alison Brown, Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, Peter Rowan, Tut Taylor and other special guests. John Hartford died ten years earlier in June 2001.
Nestled away in a classroom in Lovette Hall, unbeknownst to festival goers, “B” Townes and a video crew spent the entire weekend interviewing one artist right after another, capturing their favorite memories of MerleFest over the years. Sam Bush recollected special moments happening throughout the festival, as he has attended all of them; Doc Watson talked about the love that MerleFest artists have for his son Merle; and over 20 others included in the interviews mention their indebtedness to what this festival has meant to their careers. These interviews will be used as a special treat, video vignettes broadcast on the big screen at Watson Stage, for MerleFest 25 guests.
One significant change at MerleFest 2011 was the relocation of Austin Stage into Alumni Hall. Due to increasing concerns of safety at the Austin Stage, festival organizers agreed that the stage needed a new home. Alumni Hall was the perfect fit for the CASC, the Greatest Blues Show Ever, and continuing with the Instrument Contests and the Songwriters Coffeehouse.
“What a great weekend!” exclaimed festival director Ted Hagaman. “With over 90 artists playing on 14 stages, representing everything from bluegrass and blues, to gospel, country andAmericana, we feel that we succeeded again in giving our festival guests a great value for their entertainment dollars. I’m always so pleased to see how respectful, friendly and courteous the festival attendees are. MerleFest fans have no equal! It is our hope that everyone who comes to MerleFest has a one-of-a-kind experience.”
The total participation over the four days of MerleFest 2011 was 77,459. Fans came from 48 states, theDistrict of Columbiaand 12 foreign countries. Over 75 civic, community and institutional entities earned an estimated $428,108 through their participation. More than 4,600 volunteers made the festival possible by contributing over 49,000 hours. More than 2,800 school children from Wilkes and surrounding counties attended through MerleFest School Day. More than 10,200 students enjoyed performances through the Outreach Program.
Since the inaugural event in 1988 MerleFest has endeavored to improve each year, based on comprehensive review and evaluation with input from artists, patrons, sponsors, vendors, volunteers, staff, and, most importantly, loyal and dedicated fans. Additionally, MerleFest staff and volunteer leaders draw upon the examples set by their friends and colleagues who produce other respected and loved festivals known for both the quality of their music and the first-class treatment of their participants. Several artists have said that MerleFest pays close attention to detail and has the best technical and sound production in the industry.
Since its inception, volunteers have been integral to the success of MerleFest. Individual volunteers, volunteer stagehands, and volunteer groups, including college and community organizations, help to make the festival a success. Also, food booths are run by local non-profits, with proceeds going to further their work and mission. “Quite simply, MerleFest would not be possible without the support of our 4,000-plus volunteers,” says festival director Ted Hagaman. “Some of these individuals and organizations have given of their time since the festival began, and we are so grateful to them.”
The benefits of MerleFest to WCC were best summed up by President Gordon Burns: “It’s monetary, but it is greater than that. It’s a culmination of many years of work between the college and the community. It represents the fruition of cooperation over the years to develop the college and help it better serve the community. MerleFest complements the mission of the college by allowing it to enjoy additions like Lowe’s Hall and our beautiful gardens. The festival plays a supporting role in helping the college achieve its goals. This event reflects the tremendous community support the college enjoys. And that is because we have been one with the community.”
The music of MerleFest is best explained by Doc himself: “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. Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional plus.’”
MerleFest marks the beginning of the festival season and is an annual homecoming for musicians and music fans. This was nicely expressed by Jerry Douglas: “It’s the first festival of the season, and it’s a great time for musicians to come out of hibernation and have a reunion to kick off the season.” Chris Thile adds, “You get to see everybody you want to see here, and then perform with them. The whole MerleFest experience is great. It’s the fans, the musicians, the organization. It all converges at this place. It’s so exciting.”
No MerleFest is complete without the “My Friend Merle” set. This tradition began in 1988 with Merle’s dear friends gathering on stage to reminisce on his life and how he enriched their careers and lives. The artists performed the set for Doc and RosaLee. After the first year, Doc wanted to be a part of this wonderful tribute. This set is a favorite for loyal Merle Watson fans, and it is a favorite for Doc, too. Today, Doc, T. Michael Coleman, Jeff Little, Cliff Miller, Bob Hill, David Holt, Joe Smothers, Sam Bush, John Cowan and, of course, Merle’s son Richard Watson continue the tradition.
Reflecting on MerleFest year’s past, “B” recalls a conversation he had with Ralph Rinzler as they worked on the schedule for the very first festival. He says that Rinzler told him, “At some point and time the festival will take on a life of its own.” How prophetic a statement that was.
As we gather to enjoy the Music, Moments and Memories of MerleFest 25, let us remember to “celebrate the life of a young man who enriched the lives of all of us –Eddy Merle Watson.”
* Most of the information about early festival years is based on an interview with “B” Townes.
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/.