If you are already a fan of MerleFest, then you can skip to No. 1. For the uninitiated, however, MerleFest is the younger, Eastern cousin of the Telluride Bluegrass Festival. I discovered this gem of Americana festivals more than a decade ago after I moved to North Carolina from spending nearly a decade out West attending Telluride. You may be surprised to learn that MerleFest has nothing to do with Merle Haggard, although that has proved confusing over the years. It was especially confusing last year, when the Hag himself closed out the four-day music festival. Instead it is named in memory of Eddy Merle Watson, son of bluegrass legend Doc Watson. Known as one of the best flat-picking and slide guitarists of his generation, Merle Watson died in a farming accident in 1985 at the age of 36. Doc started the Americana festival that bears his son’s name as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College in 1988 to honor his son and their style of music, that Doc referred to as “traditional plus,” meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles the Watsons were in the mood to play. We lost Doc in 2012 but he and Merle’s celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique blend based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles, continues on at MerleFest. This year’s festival will play host to a diverse number of artists, performing on 13 stages during the course of the four-day event April 23-26. Watch this video from the very first #MerleFest 1988 featuring Mark O’Connor, Tony Rice, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Sam Bush and John Cowan, many of whom will be performing this year. And there are many more than eight reasons to attend MerleFest. Please feel free to share yours in the comment section.
No. 1 — The headliners. This may seem obvious, but over the years MerleFest has attracted such headliners as The Doobie Brothers, Roseanne Cash, Ricky Skaggs, Vince Gill, Steve Earl, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Alan Jackson, Nickel Creek, Alison Krauss, Lyle Lovett, among many others. This year’s festival will feature Dwight Yoakam, The Avett Brothers, Lee Ann Womack, The Marshall Tucker Band, Jerry Douglas and his Earls of Leicester, Steep Canyon Rangers, Robert Earl Keen, Trampled By Turtles, Tim O’Brien with Hot Rize, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, North Mississippi Allstars and the King of Telluride himself Sam Bush, just to name a few.
No 2. — Up-and-coming talent. One of the best things about MerleFest is the opportunity it provides to be introduced to musicians you haven’t heard perform before. While you will come for the headliners, it’s the artists that you will discover at MerleFest such as Scythian that will keep you coming back. These can often be found playing on the Cabin Stage to the right of the Watson stage. I have it on good authority that Jesse and Noah Bellamy, Brandon Whyde and The Devils Keep, Big Sandy and His Fly Rite Boys, Del Barber and MIPSO are artists to be watched this year.
No. 3 — Doc Watson. While Doc no longer graces the Watson Stage, his spirit is still alive and strumming and can be felt all over the festival grounds. Those who knew him strive to keep his memory alive, some through obvious ways, like Old Crow Medicine Show’s tribute, “Back in Doc’s Day,” performed last year at the festival from the band’s latest album, “Remedy,” to the numerous nods to Doc by artists as they play throughout the festival.
No. 4 — The number of stages. There are 13 this year. This is the one thing about this festival that can albeit be a detriment as well as a positive. The sheer number of stages mean there’s literally something for every musical tasted playing throughout the hills and along the waterways that dot the campus. But for anyone who has had to jog across campus to try to catch a favorite act that is playing at the same time as another, sometime there can be too much of a good thing.
No. 5 — Hillside Album Hour. The Waybacks typically return each year to MerleFest for another crowd-pleasing Album Hour on the Hillside Stage. The event, which features a classic album performed in its entirety, has become a fan favorite. Fans obsess over clues released on social media weeks before the festival because the album in question is always a closely guarded secret until that first note is played. In past years, The Waybacks have performed Bob Dylan and The Band’s “Before the Flood,” Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” the Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach” and “Are You Experienced” by Jimi Hendrix. Organizers say a Hillside Album Hour artist announcement is coming on Tuesday, March 24.
No. 6 — Tickets are still available. Unlike Telluride, it’s not sold out. In fact, four-day and single-day passes are still available at early bird prices through April 22. Telluride sold out BEFORE its June lineup was even announced. A four-day pass for MerleFest is only $150. That’s a lot of music for not a lot of dough. Compare to Telluride where 4-day passes on StubHub are currently more than double that. Find MerleFest tickets here.
No. 7 — Homecoming. MerleFest is like old home week for the artists and fans. It’s the kickoff of the outdoor music festival season for most of the artists who look forward to it as much as the fans because they know that after what is has been a long, hard and sometimes lonely winter playing solo gigs, they are going to get to hang out and jam again with many of their friends. Jerry Douglas says, “Out of Merlefest comes a lot of great things that wouldn’t happen at other festivals. I love this festival. You get to see your friends and interact with fans. It’s a place to reconnect with everyone. I know I’m going to come here and see everybody and get to hang out and play. It’s tons of fun and I wouldn’t miss it.”
No. 8 — Location, location, location. While North Wilkesboro doesn’t have impact of Bridal Veil Falls or the quaintness of the mining town of Telluride, it does have a creek running along side the campground and the aptly named Creekside Stage and the beauty of the lush, rolling Blue Ridge Mountains, which provide a fitting backdrop for those who enjoy listening to strains of mandolin and guitar sitting on the side of a mountain. Literally. If you have tried to stop from sliding down the side of the hill while catching an act on the Hilltop Stage, you know what I mean. The campus of Wilkes Community College is also easy to get to. It’s just a short drive to the west from Interstate 77 and right off the Wilkesboro exit off U.S. 421, less than an hour from Winston-Salem, N.C., and less than two from Charlotte.
This story originally appeared in The Huffington Post.