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Part 2 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

Bill Young, Doc Watson and George Hamilton IV

April 14, 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 college 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.

Continued from Part One:

Reflections on MerleFest


One night “B” woke up in a bit of a panic… as he realized he could not be sure who would actually show up to perform. He had yet to talk to any artists or plan who would play when he and Bill went back up the mountain to see Doc to work out some of these “details.” Doc gave them phone numbers for a few artists and, luckily, agent Keith Case. “B” called Keith and left messages but received no reply. “B” was persistent and eventually caught up with Keith who said, “I heard Doc was going to have a little festival for Merle. I book a lot of these people, and I’m not sure they have that date open.” – “B”’s nightmare! But the nightmare quickly faded as Keith became a valued colleague in the artist booking process. In the meantime, Doc was talking up the festival at his concerts, so the Walker Center box office was getting many calls from all over the country for tickets, and the house sold out.

The food tent in the beginning

Now that they had artists, “B” asked Bud Mayes about the sound system. Bud told him that the Walker Center did not have a sound system, and it was too late to rent one. Back to Doc, who said his friend Cliff Miller, who used to play with him and Merle, would take care of the sound. Cliff had played with Doc and Merle and was in the sound system business. Sure enough, when “B” called, Cliff said he would do anything for Doc. When Cliff visited the campus, “B” told him that the house was sold out. Cliff suggested that they have the festival outside to accommodate more folks to which “B” replied, “What do you mean, have it outside??!!”

Cliff said, “Well, let’s look around the campus.” They came to the area in front of what is now the Watson Stage, and Cliff said, “You could have it in that field, have it inside and outside.”

When “B” proposed the inside/outside idea to Bud and President Daniel, he recalls them saying, “Are you crazy? You have sold out the Walker Center. You need to cut and run.” “B” persisted and with the backing of Bill and Doc, he went back to Bud and President Daniel, who eventually conceded that it was his show and okayed the outside venue idea.

Grandpa Jones with Smith Sisters

So at this point, the event had evolved from a one-man, one-night show to a three-venue, multiple-artist, two-day festival, which led to another problem—how to schedule all of the artists who were going to show up for the festival. Almost none of them were in band configurations. Doc had said that his old friend Ralph Rinzler would help with the schedule. Ralph was a successful folk musician and music producer who had “discovered” Doc by getting him to the Newport Folk Festival in the ‘60s. At this time he was the curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Museum and happened to be working inFrance, which is why he did not immediately return “B”’s calls. Finally, the weekend before the festival “B” got a call at home from Ralph, who said, “I know Doc wants me to speak or do something at a memorial for Merle. Do you know anything about it?”

“B” responded, “Doc told me that you would schedule the musicians and tell them when and with whom they will play.”

Ralph said, “Okay. I am flying into Greensboro on Wednesday. Can someone pick me up?”

Of course, “B” picked him up, and Ralph worked with college staff to develop a schedule for who would play with whom, when, where and for how long.

Another big help showed up the last week as well. Jim Matthews was a carpenter from Elkin, N.C. who had worked on festivals in California. He walked into “B”’s office two days before the festival and declared, “You need my help!” So “B” showed him the venues. When they got to the field, Jim asked, “Where are they going to play?”

“B” said, “Somewhere out in the field.”

Jim said, “You need a stage!”

Chet Atkins as Bill and Evelyn Young look on

As a result, Ralph Williams, a supporter of the college, helped “B” arrange to have two flatbed trailers delivered and placed side by side in front of the cabin. The 200-year-old log cabin was donated to the college by Joe and Lillie Brewer and placed in the field as part of the Garden Master Plan. Jim and several volunteers spent an all-nighter with hammers in hand turning the flatbeds into a serviceable stage. The audience sat on hay bales and their own folding chairs. The informal ambience was exemplified by a dog chewing on a bone in the front row. David Holt emceed and played on the outside stage while George Hamilton IV took care of the Walker Center introductions. The concert was going extremely well until Sunday afternoon when New Grass Revival with Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn and Béla Fleck rolled in just an hour before they were scheduled to go on stage. They were supposed to be the last group to perform in theWalkerCenterand then play the last set outside. “B” explained the schedule to their road manager who said they needed an hour just to set up and would only appear on the outdoor set. “B” went backstage at the Walker Center to tell George Hamilton IV the news, and he responded, “Well, “B,” you are just going to have to go out there and tell those folks that if they want to see New Grass Revival, they will need to get out of their comfortable, reserved seats and walk on down the hill to the outside stage.” With much trepidation “B” did just that and was relieved when everyone followed him down to the other venue to enjoy what turned out to be a legendary performance.

One of the great traditions of MerleFest, “Tribute to Merle,” began as the finale of the first festival when all the artists gathered on stage to sing “A Song for Merle.” Shortly after Merle’s death, Wayne Hayes, a great friend of the Watsons, dealt with the pain he felt by composing the touching tribute. Wayne and Doc led the singing in 1988 to the familiar tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and guests are invited to join each year in singing the following for Merle:

A Song for Merle

He learned to pick the guitar

while his dad was on the road.

Doc Watson was a model for his son.

When Doc sat center stage and sang,

his son Merle picked out lead.

But now we don’t have Merle to pick

around with anymore.

From theBlue Ridge Mountains

of Carolina

to California by the sea,

Doc and Merle made bluegrass

a way of life.

They never forgot their roots, nor from

where their music came.

Now Merle’s up in heaven, we’ll

be singing once again.



Will the circle be unbroken,

Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.

When God’s heavenly choir sings,

He’ll have Merle pickin’ the lead

In the sky, Lord, in the sky.


Yes, Merle will be missed by his loved

ones left on earth.

His Gallagher guitar once

touched us all.

His daddy is his daddy, but most

of all his friend,

And someday we’ll have Merle

to pick around with once again.

Yes, Merle’s gone to heaven

to pick flat-top for his Lord.

He’ll play for Him

“Treasure’s Untold.”

He’ll be missed by bluegrass fans,

just like you and me,

His daddy, but most of all

his momma, RosaLee.

Repeat chorus


Merle Watson

Also, at the end of the first festival during the dedication of the garden, Bill Young spoke these words: “This evening we are here to celebrate the life of a young man who enriched the lives of all of us who have been present the last two days—Eddy Merle Watson. We remember him with love . . .”

The 1988 festival was a great success that raised money to add planters, walkways and other improvements to theEddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses. It was planned as a one-time event, but again “B”’s perseverance resulted in the festival we know today. Mule Ferguson, a local businessman and amateur musician, owned a video recording business, and he filmed the outside concert and the workshop in the Pit. WFMX radio recorded the audio. Mule encouraged “B” to sync the audio and video and try to sell VHS tapes of the concert to raise more funds for the garden. “B” and Mule spent evenings syncing the audio and video and then presented the idea of marketing the recording to Bill Young. Bill thought it was a good idea, but all the artists would have to give their permission. This was a daunting task that “B” worked hard on by making repeated calls to artists and agents.

In the meantime, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for a second festival as evidenced by many calls to theWalkerCenter. Once again, Bill and “B” met with Doc and asked him about another festival. Doc agreed that it was a good idea, but this time he felt that the artists would need to be compensated in some way. Also at this meeting, they decided to have a small concert in the fall of 1988 to unveil the recording of the 1988 festival. This concert was called “Autumn Pickin’ in the Gardens” and featured Doc and a few friends playing on the cabin porch. Ultimately, 5,000 tapes were sold worldwide, which created great publicity for the 1989 festival…

Story continues on Monday.

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/.

Read Part 1