Headliners such as John Prine, Jason Isbell and John Oates have drawn nearly 80,000 Americana music fans annually to the hills of MerleFest on the campus of Wilkes Community College in North Carolina each April for the past 28 years. But it is the young musicians trying to share their unique sound who can provide some of the freshest and transcendent moments at this festival founded by the legendary Doc Watson, as a tribute to his son Merle Watson, who called it “traditional-plus” music.
Watson also helped launch the careers of many artists and the MerleFest Band Competition is a way to continue that tradition, says Steve Johnson, the festival’s artist relations manager.
That’s why in 2015 Johnson started the MerleFest Band Competition. Johnson spends most of his year scouting out bands for the competition as he travels across the region and beyond. Unlike its older cousin the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, which is all about the songwriting, the MerleFest Band Competition is made up of bands Johnson says may be very popular to their local/regional audiences that he feels have the talent to land them on much larger stages across the country.
“The winner of the band competition will perform on the Watson Stage on Saturday,” Johnson says. “My hope is that this opportunity will expose the winner to a whole new audience of listeners. You never know; one day the competition winner could be a headliner at MerleFest.”
MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, serves as an annual homecoming for musicians and music fans. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson. MerleFest is a celebration of ‘traditional plus’ music, a unique mix of music 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. The festival hosts numerous artists, performing on 13 stages during the course of the four-day event, April 25-28. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.