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Part 6 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

April 20, 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.

John Hartford tips his hat.

Continued from Part Five:

Reflections on MerleFest


Four days of great weather and great music characterized MerleFest 1995. A huge crowd of fans, many dancing, filled the Hillside Stage area to hear newcomer Leftover Salmon. Other first-timers included Nickel Creek, Chesapeake, Robert Earl Keen and Gillian Welch, who returned as an extremely successful artist after having won first place in the first CASC-country category. The 1995 lineup included Ricky Skaggs, The Tractors, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Junior Brown and the legendary John Hartford.

Inspired by audience surveys, letters from participants, and observation of other festivals, MerleFest has implemented many changes that have enhanced the festival experience. The MerleFest Gift Shop began selling all things MerleFest in 1996. Also that year’s program promoted the new and growing website, which provides a wealth of MerleFest information and a forum for audience feedback. Since then, the website has become increasingly sophisticated and now allows fans to buy tickets over the Internet. It also is used to promote other MerleFest social media venues: Facebook, Twitter and an e-newsletter. MerleFest’s 22,000 Facebook friends have lively discussions and share photos, and the MerleFest electronic newsletter, which began in 2008, delivers festival information to 18,000 fans.

Leftover Salmon


On Friday evening, April 26, 1996, the great music was exemplified by a solid two-hour performance of folk music by first-timer John Prine. Other new faces included Alvin Youngblood Hart, the New Lost City Ramblers, Darrell Scott and Dave Van Ronk. Of course, MerleFest welcomed back many of its longtime friends like John Cowan, Peter Rowan, Ricky Skaggs, Frosty Morn, Jerry Douglas, David Holt, Sam Bush, Cephas and Wiggins, Tony Rice and Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. The acoustic blues show emceed by Roy Book Binder on the Austin Stage began in 1996 and has become a favorite of the festival. According to a local newspaper report, Alison Krauss, a big draw on Sunday, called MerleFest the best festival in the country as she signed autographs and spoke to fans after playing with her band Union Station.

In addition, beginning in 1996, MerleFest began welcoming more than 3,200 public school students on Friday of the festival as part of School Day. The students arrive on buses with their teachers and chaperones to experience the festival firsthand and learn about the musical heritage of this region. School Day was an addition to the Walker Center School Events Program, which started in 1984 and offers plays or musical performances throughout the year that relate to the curriculum in area schools.

Volunteers serve in various capacities during School Day to help ensure the safety of all children while on the festival grounds. Many have volunteered with this program from its inception and always want to have a role in such a vital part of MerleFest.

The Dixie Chicks


In 1997, the 10th edition of MerleFest featured the new Americana Stage, which brought the number of venues up to 11. Despite freezing temperatures Friday night and steady rain on Sunday, paid attendance of 26,853 was up 18.5 percent over 1996’s total of 22,650. Overall participation was 45,122, including 2,100 volunteers and 10,000 public school students who saw entertainers at their schools on Thursday and Friday through the Outreach Program. Some 40 area nonprofit organizations netted more than a quarter of a million dollars through their involvement in the tenth festival. Over the first 10 years, the proceeds from MerleFest funded $238,135 in scholarships and permitted the college to make $1,104,233 in capital improvements.

In addition to artists like the Dixie Chicks, EmmyLou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Ricky Skaggs, MerleFest 1997 celebrated the diversity that it is known for by showcasing the “Afro-Celtic” sounds of the Laura Love Band, the Scottish folk music of the Rankin Family and Natalie MacMaster, and the Cajun sounds of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys and  the Kruger Brothers.


Major improvements occurred at the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre prior to the 1998 festival. Construction crews raised the entire structure approximately six feet, which greatly improved visibility, and added new wings to make more space for audience seating and artist hospitality. The raising of the stage proved to be well-timed because the lower campus was flooded by heavy rains just days before the festival started. “B” said he was impressed that festival organizers were able to overcome the flooding problems and be ready for the crowds. He said, “It’s a challenge to pull it off anyway. I was just amazed at how smooth it all went. That goes back to people planning. We already were ahead of schedule before the rain came.”

Bela Fleck and the Flecktones

A big improvement in 1998 was the assigned seating section in front of the Watson Stage. About 3,000 chairs sold out in advance. This alleviated the mad rush to get good seating in front of the Watson Stage and solved the problem of chairs that were too high and blocked views. “I remember having to stand at the entrance gate and measure the height of festival goers’ chairs as they entered the gates to ensure that fans could see over each other with an unobstructed view of the stage,” says Sherry Dancy, who has been a part of the MerleFest team since the beginning. “We had a height limit so that everyone would be able to see the stage from the field.”

“Adding the reserved seating also made entry into the festival a much safer process,” says Kathy Gray, a member of the MerleFest team since the festival’s first year. “I’ll never forget watching the crowd waiting at the festival gates, and as soon as the gates would open, the sea of people would literally flood onto campus. It was exciting!”

The newly constructed Alumni Hall introduced two new venues to MerleFest 1998–the Plaza Stage and the Lounge. The Lounge hosted Friday Night Coffeehouse, a gathering place for singer-songwriters to socialize and display their talents, and the Saturday Night Teen Dance. The creation of the Lounge gave the Instrument Contests a new home. By this time, the Instrument Contests included the Doc Watson Guitar Championship, the Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Championship and the Mandolin Championship (discontinued in 2011 due to lack of participation).

Good weather and a record number of fans from around the country (and the world) combined to make MerleFest 1998 perhaps the best edition to date. On Saturday afternoon Leftover Salmon played to thousands of people on the Hillside Stage; a thousand fans packed the Walker Center for the Nashville Bluegrass band; blues artists Catfish Keith and Roy Book Binder were on the Austin Stage; and Doc Watson led “Doc’s Jam” on the Watson Stage.

Another regular feature at MerleFest began in 1998: Sandy Feat’s incredible sand sculpture. Every year the artists amaze festival goers with intricate sand art on display in front of theVisitorsCenter. The massive sand display takes 16 tons of sand and approximately 25 hours to create. In the weeks after the festival, as the last signs of MerleFest begin to fade away, Feat’s sand sculpture remains to endure the test of weather and wear.

Hootie and the Blowfish, joined by Chris Thile, ushered in MerleFest 1999 by offering a free concert for Wilkes Community College students. “This band’s generosity truly represented the spirit of MerleFest—giving in order to enrich the college and community,” says Ted Hagaman, festival director. “In this case, the students who always endure some displacement during the weeks leading up to MerleFest as the entire campus is transformed into festival grounds.”

Story continued on Saturday.

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/.