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Part 5 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

April 19, 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 Four:

Heavy rains flooded the grounds in 1992

Reflections on MerleFest


Rain plagued several festivals in the early years. Merely days before the 1992 festival, Moravian Creek flooded the festival grounds and the lower campus buildings. The
Boomer Fire Department helped pump water away on the Monday and Tuesday before the festival.

Along with being filmed, the 1992 festival introduced the MerleFest mascot—the big, friendly raccoon you see ambling around the grounds. Why a raccoon? Based on his suggestion, Merle’s band, Frosty Morn, used a racoon as its logo. A naming contest gave Flattop his name – a truly fitting one, because of Merle and Doc’s mastery of the flattop guitar. The Doc Watson Guitar Championship began in 1992 as well.


For the 1993 festival the shuttle bus system began, which made it more convenient to park and camp off campus at the former airport area. MerleFest partnered with area Boy Scout troops, who use their buses to provide the shuttle service to free parking at the Blue Lot. With the addition of all-day concerts in theWalkerCenterand the Austin Stage, there were eight venues.

Another significant addition in 1993 was designating Thursday night of the festival as Bill and Evelyn Young Night to honor the late Bill Young and his widow Evelyn. “I really don’t know what I would have done without Bill over the years,” says Doc Watson. “The friendship he and Evelyn showed to me and my family meant so much to us. A day does not go by that RosaLee and I don’t think of Bill and remember something we shared. We sure do miss him.” Bill Young was instrumental in laying the foundation for MerleFest by suggesting to Doc that he perform for a one-time fundraising event for the college.

Parking lot jam

The debut of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (CASC) occurred in 1993. The contest was established in memory of Boone, N.C., native Chris Austin, a talented songwriter and multi-instrument musician who was killed in a plane crash in 1991 along with six other members of Reba McEntire’s band and her tour manager. Proceeds from the contest were designated to establish the Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship to benefit students ofWilkesCommunity Collegeand build the Austin Stage. To date the scholarship has helped 74 students.

The CASC consists of four categories: bluegrass, coun-try, gospel/inspirational and general. Entries are judged by a panel of professional songwriters, publishers or other music industry professionals from the Nashville music community who volunteer their time. The 12 finalists participate in the on-site contest to choose a winner from each category. The winners then have a Cabin Stage performance of their song. The contest receives approximately 1,000 entries each year.

Gillian Welch won the first country category of the CASC, which gave her career a significant boost. Other winners have included Tift Merritt, Michael Reno Harrell, Adrienne Young, Martha Scanlan, David Via, Sam Quinn and Johnny Williams. The contest has always had a reputation of having top songwriters to judge the on-site contest. On-site judges have included Darrell Scott, Gillian Welch, Guy Clark, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Laurelyn Dossett. Hayes Carll, James Nash and Wyatt Durrette.

Face painting was added to Little Pickers Area in 1993

Many new family activities, such as face painting, crafts, penny dig, juggling, sand art, storytelling and sing-alongs, were added to the Little Pickers Family Area. More recently, the Youth Showcase, hosted by Andy May, on the Little Pickers Stage has grown in popularity. Musicians aged 16 and younger of any talent level are encouraged to display their pickin’ skills.

Beausoleil, Mary Chapin Carpenter and bluesmen Cephas and Wiggins were among the 1993 first-timers. Other MerleFest regulars included, of course, Doc and Richard Watson along with T. Michael Coleman, Joe Smothers, Bob Hill, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan and Pete Wernick. Merle’s band, Frosty Morn, is a regular feature at MerleFest.


In 1994, the main festival entrance was moved to its present location in front of the pond. This added much needed space to the growing festival. The Dance Stage was separated from the Traditional Stage, and the Hillside Stage debuted for a total of 10 venues. Doc’s three-hour All-Star Jam on Friday night ended with a lively set featuring bluesmen John Cephas and Phil Wiggins. Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys also played at the festival that year. During a special set on Sunday they were accompanied at different times by Doc, Larry Sparks, Ricky Skaggs and EmmyLou Harris. Newcomers to the 1994 festival included Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Junior Brown, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Iris Dement, Eustace Conway and MerleFest favorite Donna theBuffalo.

The food tent several years after the festival's inception

For the first five years the festival was known as the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival. However, that was about to change. After playing at the 1994 festival, the band Strictly Clean and Decent broke down in Boomer, N.C. While waiting to get back on the road, band member Kay Crouch wrote a song called “Boomer Breakdown.” Crouch wrote a letter to “B” that included the song and asked “B” for the dates for the next “MerleFest.” “B” was intrigued by the term and brought the idea of renaming the festival to the Watson family. With their blessing and enthusiasm, “MerleFest” stuck and is now recognized worldwide…

Story continued on Friday.

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/.