On a school bus taking my fellow festivalgoers and me from parking lot “C” to the main entrance, I lean forward and mention to the woman sitting in the seat in front of me that this is my first time attending Merlefest. Both she and her young daughter look at me with a disbelief, almost like they’re waiting for me to tell them I was joking.
“It’s the biggest thing close to Christmas around here,” the mother said. “It’s like a holiday.”
The first Merlefest took place in 1988 in memory of Merle Watson, son of legendary traditional musician Doc Watson and a talented guitarist in his own right. In the festival’s first year, 1,100 seats were scheduled to be available. Since then, every subsequent year’s attendance has increased. Last year, at Merlefest’s 30th anniversary, the aggregate involvement exceeded 83,000 participants.
Merlefest is hosted yearly by Wilkesboro Community College, which shuts down its campus for several days every year in preparation for the Thursday festival kickoff.
Joe Connelly, a returning volunteer for the festival since 1999, gave me the rundown on the lengthy list of attractions. I asked him about the demographic and how it seemed pretty spread out from seniors to infants with their parents, and almost everything in between. He shrugged and said, “It’s a different kind of festival.”
He explained that people can come in early in the morning and put their chairs and coolers down, then leave them there all day until the band they want to see starts. This kind of thing would be considered careless at any other summertime music festival. Why it isn’t at Merlefest is a testament to the community attachment and involvement the people of Wilkesboro and the surrounding areas have had for the annual event for over three decades.
I passed through the entry and was met by a setup that looked like a farmers’ market. Vendor tents stood side by side, taking up an entire parking lot. After taking a walk I passed a variety of pop-up shops that were predominantly North Carolinian, with a couple from Tennessee and Georgia. I bought a sweet hat. It was in this market area of the festival I noticed the different age groups walking around. Not just college kids, but seniors and young children as well.
Over the tops of the tents in the marketplace I could hear the sound of glass sliding on coiled wires – the familiar tone of a steel resonator guitar with bluesy attitude. I followed the sound. I wound up behind a sea of lawn chairs that led to a stage with two giant screens on each side. It was Dobro player Jerry Douglas, a prolific musician and record producer who has won multiple Grammys and prestigious awards from both the CMA and IBMA, and he was on his last song.
Then an announcer strolled onstage to say that the showcase was starting. A girl who didn’t look or sound a day over 12 skipped to the microphone with a mandolin and began singing. After her two-minute performance she smiled and waved and exited the stage to a roar of supportive applause. She and the others after her were participants of the young songwriters showcase that Merlefest puts on every year.
Behind the mass of lawn chairs of the main stage is an open grass area. Kids were playing, throwing balls, playing tag or even napping with their parent or grandparent on a blanket as the sun went down.
The entire campus grounds felt genuinely North Carolinian. A cross pollination of communal elements that really solidified the family vibe, like giant tents with food stands identical to the ones from the State Fair, giant round tables from barbeque restaurants, all with bluegrass reverberating in the background.
On my bus back to parking lot “C” I sat next to an older lady who chatted happily with me. I told her I was writing a piece on the festival and she said, “Oh well you should let everyone know about Merlefest.” Then she stopped, thought her statement over in her head, and said what I took to be the most important ingredient to Merlefest’s winning formula.
“Well, actually, don’t tell too many people,” she said. “It’ll ruin it all.”