Merlefest Turns 35, Celebrates Doc’s 100th

We here at Americana Rhythm aren’t shy about our affection for Merlefest. The festival that was created 35 years ago (1988), to celebrate the life of Doc Watson’s son, Merle, after his life was tragically cut short in a farm tractor accident – It’s the festival that inspired us to create this magazine almost 20 years ago. It was the beginning of my baptism into the string music family – and I just couldn’t believe how much I had been missing. Then I realized most of my immediate friends hadn’t heard about this celebration either. Hmm … How could I tell as many people as possible about my new favorite genre’ of music?

Here we are 98 issues later, getting excited about the 35th edition of Merlefest, and what would be the 100th birthday of Doc Watson – father of Merle, and a man who championed a style of music he simply called, “tradition plus”; and we have come to commonly know as, Americana.

How Does It Work?
It’s a genre’ that pulls together a lot of styles, from Appalachian old time, to Bluegrass, to Folk, to Singer-Songwriter, to Mountain Soul, to alternative Country, and all kinds of variations in between. As the popularity of this umbrella grows, so does the number of musicians and bands creating their own original interpretation of it. And while there are many, many amazing festivals, large and small, on the East Coast, at least, (Wilkesboro, NC) there’s none in size, scope, and variety like Merlefest.

In fact, managing 12 stages and booking enough acts to entertain 70,000+ attendees each year is quite the undertaking. I got the chance to speak with Lindsay Craven, Artist Relations Manager for Merlefest, about the scope of this task.

Lindsay started as an intern with Merlefest in 2007 while attending college at Appalachian State University. “I worked with them my junior and senior years,” she said. “And ever since then, I’ve been back as a volunteer or a part time worker; and now a full time worker,” she laughed.

Lindsay was a double major in college; in journalism and advertising, when she ran across a marketing and advertising internship being offered by Merlefest. “I thought, ‘well, I’m into music, I worked for this college newspaper on the entertainment section and lifestyle stuff. – it seemed like it would be a good balance of those things, and good experience.”

Lindsay continued, “Somehow though, my first year I ended up on the artists relations team which was working directly with the artists during the festival. That was a pretty cool experience, and then they invited me back on the artist’s relations team the following year, and I’ve been here ever since.”

Picking The Talent
Lindsay’s primary role is looking at the talent options, selecting the bands that will play every year, making the schedule for all 12 stages, select the bands, handling all the contracting and the preparation for them to get there, and then taking care of them while they’re on location.

Other moving parts of her job include the outreach program in the schools. “Both the going out to the schools, and sending artists to perform there,” she said. “And then we also have a school day where we invite students to visit the festival directly.”

While it’s a lot of tasks, Lindsay said, “Thankfully, since I had been with the festival so long, I had a pretty good feel of how it all worked. And I’ve worked with three previous artist relations managers over the course of my time with the festival. So I learned a lot from all of them. Steve Johnson, who was here before me, shared a lot of his time, and really explained what he did. He did a great job in handing off the role,” she commented.

Honoring Doc
The Kruger brothers will be hosting Doc’s 100th Birthday Jam on the Watson stage on Saturday of the festival this April. “And they’ll have several guests on that,” Lindsay said. “We have several Doc Jams across the festival that are done every year, and will continue this year and I’m sure we’ll have some little extra things added to it.”

Some of the big name artists performing this year include, The Avett Brothers, country mega-star and Highwoman Maren Morris, Nickel Creek, Marcus King, Tanya Tucker, Sam Bush, and The Brothers Comatose, just to name a few.

I asked Lindsay how she knew if a band would be a good fit for the festival. “Some are just a given of course, but if I’m really questioning whether someone’s going to be a good match, I’ll try to go catch them live somewhere before we talk about hiring, so I can get a feel for what the live show looks like. Sometimes the live show and the recorded show is a lot different. And we want to make sure that their values match with our values in terms of being family friendly, and being able to pull off a show that’s going to work for an alcohol free audience.We’ve got lots of unique things about us that we have to factor in. When we’re looking at our artists we need to make sure that they’re still going be able to perform at the level they’re used to, and still meet our quality standards as well,” she said.

Tickets are available in advance, and at the gate for this year’s festival, April 27th – 30th, in Wilkesboro, NC. Visit for more details.

Check out my podcast with Lindsay for a more in depth conversation about this year’s festival.

By Greg Tutwiler