“Merlefest, yeah I’ve heard of that! Isn’t that the festival named after Merle Haggard?” This is the “knowledge” most mainstream music fans have about the bluegrass/Americana festival that has been held on the Wilkesboro Community College campus for over a quarter of a century. If you ask a lot of musicians and attendees who return year after year, that misconception is alright with them.
In actuality, the festival is named for another notable musician with the name Merle – Merle Watson, the son of legendary flat-picking guitar player Doc Watson. Doc’s son was killed in a tractor accident on the family farm, and thus Doc created Merlefest as a tribute to his son, and as a way to raise money for the local community college. The first Merlefest was held on the back of a truck with Doc and a few of his friends in 1988.
In the years since, the festival has morphed into the top fundraising source for Wilkesboro Community College, and has become one of, if not the finest, display of live roots music to be found. The truck bed is long gone, with the festival now boasting multiple stages with past performers from Alison Krauss, Ricky Skaggs, Chris Thile, to Steve Martin. While it has grown significantly, it is still at its core, a musicians and music fan’s festival. Despite the big names that it draws, it has never been a festival that is overly concerned with the festival style and look that can sometimes dominate summer festivals. Merlefest is about music and that concern creates an experience like no other.
One of the hallmarks of the festival is the jamming mentality. One year you might find Elvis Costello jamming with the Waybacks on the Hillside stage, or Gillian Welch and David Rawlings playing late into the night on the Cabin Stage with Chris Thile accompanying on mandolin. These are epic performances that you won’t find in your festival schedule book. They happen organically, the way the best things in music and life seem to do. A walk into the festival campground can find festival performers making music late into the night with their fans as a glowing campfire sparks all around them. There is no pretense here – there is only a love and appreciation for the music.
So we come to the present, 2021, a full blown pandemic at play and some of the first live music many people have seen in over a year. Does this change Merlefest? Does it still go on? The answer is yes to both. Usually held the last weekend in April, the festival has been moved for one year only to mid-September. Admittance to the festival will require festival goers to provide proof of vaccination or a negative Covid test taken within the last week. But the music will go on, and this year’s lineup does not disappoint.
Sturgil Simpson will be a featured headliner on Thursday evening. His music is filled with an honesty and devotion to his craft that has the ability to permeate the many differences we may have as attendees. He sets the stage for the rest of the weekend. LeAnne Rimes and the Milk Carton Kids are bringing the diversity in sound and talent that Merlefest is known for on Friday. Shovels and Rope and Balsam Range are Saturday highlights that are sure to reassure musicians and fans alike that the future of Americana and Roots music are in good hands. Sunday, the final day of Merlefest, we are going to church with the legendary Mavis Staples and Melissa Etheridge. It seems a fitting end and a beautiful way to send festival goers back into the world filled with hope and light.
Merlefest is a beautiful little secret that a lot of people know a little about, but unless they’ve attended, they don’t know nearly enough. Whether you’re traveling to the Brushy Mountains of Wilkesboro, North Carolina this year, or have gone in the past, You’ll likely agree that Merlefest is a festival and experience quite like no other. If you love music, regardless of genre, Merlefest is a must see.
By Lacey Roop