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Part 3 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

April 16, 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.

The Watson Stage during construction phase

Continued from Part Two:

Reflections on MerleFest


In preparation for the second festival, “B” researched bluegrass music and continued his work developing the college grounds. One big improvement was building the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre. Ralph Williams knew of a church that had bought trusses that were too small for its new building. “B” asked Dwight Hartzog, the WCC construction instructor, if he could build a stage and use the trusses to cover it. Dwight was amenable, and the trusses were donated. Dwight used volunteer and construction student labor to build the covered venue, so the 1989 festival was held on the skeleton of the original Watson Stage with the Cabin Stage serving as a “tweener” to cover set changes on its larger neighbor.

Crowd looks toward the new stage built, which was built in 1989.

The 1989 lineup included fewer individual artists and more bluegrass bands, such as Hot Rize, Jim and Jesse and The Virginia Boys, Mac Wiseman and the Wildwood Express, Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, and Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. Another historical moment at the ’89 festival was EmmyLou Harris performing on the Watson Stage with a young Vince Gill playing backup for her. Doc said it was a great festival, but he wanted a greater variety of traditional music and more opportunity for musicians to jam in unique combinations.

Motivated by Doc, “B” began researching folk music and contacted Robin and Linda Williams who knew the scene well. They suggested he call Pete Seeger to see if he would play. When  “B” called, Pete’s wife, Toshi, answered and said that they had always wanted Doc to play at Pete’s Clearwater Festival in upstate New York. Pete agreed to play at MerleFest if Doc would come up to his event. When “B” asked Doc about it, he said he would be glad to play if “B” would take him up there. “B” readily agreed and so began his intense exposure to the world of “traditional plus” music.


Vince Gill with EmmyLou Harris

The 1990 festival did branch out from pure bluegrass to include more folk music and blues with musicians such as Gamble Rogers, Happy Traum, Roy Book Binder, Etta Baker, and Robin and Linda Williams. This trend toward a wide variety of “traditional plus” music has continued and is a major reason for MerleFest’s spectacular success. Other innovations in 1990 included big audience tents, many music workshops, mountain heritage craft demonstrations, nature walks and hay rides.

At the 1990 festival “B” asked Pete Wernick if he would host one of his banjo camps the next year. So the first MerleFest camp was in 1991 in the backstage room of the original Watson Stage. The camp soon outgrew the small backstage room and relocated to theWalkerCenter. Early on, campers got to play a number or two on the Cabin Stage for the Thursday crowd. By 1999 Pete had begun teaching bluegrass jamming on all instruments, not just banjos. The banjo camp became the world’s first bluegrass jam camp. In 2006, with the camp pushing the Walker Center’s limits, “B” suggested moving the jam camp to the beautiful new YMCA property called Camp Harrison at Herring Ridge in Boomer, N.C. The folks there offered a large meeting hall and a great layout of cabins where campers could stay, eat together, and jam at all hours, even by a campfire by the lake at night. In 2011, 60 musicians honed their skills at Camp Harrison…

Story continued on Wednesday.

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/.