1000 x 90

Part 4 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

April 18, 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 Three:

Early jam with Peter Rowan and Tony Rice at Walker Center

Reflections on MerleFest


The 1991 festival was the first four-day event and was the beginning of many other important additions and innovations that have become hallmarks of MerleFest, including the Little Pickers Stage, Caboose Concerts, Creekside workshops and performances in the Pit. When not in use, workshop stages were available for any artist or the public to use. This idea has grown into thePickin’ Place, which is made up of the Traditional Jammin’ Tent, Bluegrass Jammin’ Tent, Anything Goes Jammin’ Tent, and Hands-On Tent. Starting on the Monday evening before MerleFest, everyone is encouraged to play, listen and dance.

It was in 1991 that the MerleFest Outreach Program began. At an International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) conference inOwensboro,Ky., “B” learned about the IBMA Outreach Program with area schools. “I was impressed with that program, and it fit the mission of the college, so we applied the idea to MerleFest.” The Outreach Program began with a few performances atWilkesCountyelementary schools and grew to as many as 30 performances over a two-day period. Logistics for the program in the early years took many hours of preparation securing sound systems, sound technicians, and a transportation guide or a van pickup at local hotels to transport the bands to the schools. The program has been streamlined over the years.

Doc Watson and Ronnie Milsap in 1991

Artists that have performed include MerleFest favorites Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, The Avett Brothers, The Waybacks, the John Cowan Band, Donna theBuffalo, Old Crow Medicine Show, Ricky Skaggs, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, and Nickel Creek. The years have included many memorable performances, riveting tales of lost artists trying to find a school on the outskirts of the rural county, and students overwhelmed to hear songs performed in Spanish at their school.

Some special highlights included a performance by Béla Fleck and the Flecktones at a junior high school that ended with the principal and students crowding the gym floor to dance. Another memorable performance featured Doc and Richard Watson and Charles Welch performing at a nursing home to a room packed with residents, doctors, nurses and staff overwhelmed by such talented musicians. Ricky Skaggs wrote a letter after an outreach performance recalling it as the best experience he ever had. Mark Richards, current production technician for theWalkerCenterand MerleFest, began his career at the age of 16 at a small elementary school when he ran the sound system for an outreach performance by Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings. A few years after that performance, Gillian approached Mark at MerleFest and offered him a job touring with her, which he was delighted to accept. Shortly after that, Mark was introduced to Cliff Miller of SE Systems and was hired to run the sound for theWalkerCenterperformances during MerleFest. MerleFest 25 welcomes Mark as a full-time employee ofWilkesCommunity Collegeand MerleFest, and he recalls fondly what brought him here.

Gillian Welch

Since its inception, the Outreach Program has been offered to area schools at no cost. The program has introduced tens of thousands of children to the rich musical heritage of this region. It has enriched their lives and exposed them to genres of music that many would never have the opportunity to experience. 

The first Midnight Jam was held in the WalkerCenterin 1991. The idea of a Midnight Jam was conceived during a midnight conversation between “B” and Tony Rice at an IBMA conference. They were trying to come up with something new that could be added to enhance MerleFest. Tony suggested a jam at midnight – The Midnight Jam. Tony Rice agreed to co-host the set with Peter Rowan, and Midnight Jam
was born. Grammy Award-winning musician Laurie Lewis says it well: “You never know what’s going to happen. You get the chance to play with people you don’t usually perform with.”

Still today, Midnight Jam exemplifies the fact that jamming became a defining feature of MerleFest from the beginning as the mix of artists collaborate in unique ways. In 2011, Casey Driessen brought unprecedented life to theWalkerCenterstage during the Midnight Jam. He incorporated artists from every genre, including jugglers, cloggers and Grammy-winning jammers, into the action. Fans never knew what was going to happen next on stage.

Little Pickers Stage back in the day

In 1991, ten nonprofit groups from the immediate area sold food. The college could have managed all the moneymaking aspects of the festival, but, in keeping with the mission of the college, it was decided to help the community by encouraging the participation of local nonprofit groups. MerleFest has become the major fundraiser for several of these groups. The first for-profit vendors selling musical instruments, CDs and accessories came that year. Since then other vendors are approved and set up to sell many other items, including crafts, clothing and jewelry, in what is now known as The Shoppes at MerleFest.

The 1991 lineup included Ronnie Milsap, Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart, EmmyLou Harris, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Jerry Douglas, Roland White, Béla Fleck, Tony Rice Unit, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan and the Red Clay Ramblers. Some notable artists played for the first time in 1991. Pete Seeger made good on his promise to play, and Alison Krauss got a boost early in her career by playing with her band, Union Station.

Little Pickers Area in the beginning

After the 1991 festival “B” received a call from the University of North Carolina Television (UNCTV). “B” agreed to let UNCTV film the festival for eventual broadcast. They brought eight cameras and videotaped all four days of the 1992 festival, capturing high-quality recordings of concert performances, artist interviews, workshops and fun activities. Much of this footage was shown on public television stations nationwide over a three-year period in a series entitled “Pickin’ for Merle…Doc Watson and Friends.” In addition, UNCTV worked with WCC staff to create a spectacular two-hour videotape of festival highlights, including a jam with Doc Watson and Tim O’Brien singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky” backed by Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Pete Wernick on banjo, and the incredible triple fiddles of Stuart Duncan, Mark O’Connor and Rickie Simpkins. In another great jam, “Bluegrass Breakdown” is played by Ricky Skaggs, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, David Grisman, Del McCoury, Pete Wernick, Mark O’Connor and Rickie and Ronnie Simpkins…

Story continued on Thursday.

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/.