Merlefest was founded in 1988 as a small memorial for the Eddy Merle Watson, tragically killed in a tractor accident in 1985. The first festival was presented on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC on a trailer bed with hay bales scattered around and many of Merle and his father Doc Watson’s friends participating in a benefit to raise funds for a memorial garden in his name. There aren’t many hay bales on the College campus any longer as Merlefest has grown into the largest festival held in the east and one of the most important acoustic Americana festivals in the nation. Each year, between seventy-five and eighty thousand people attend this event over a four day period during the last weekend in April. This year’s dates are April 28 – May 1. Fans attending the festival are confronted with an often bewildering schedule presenting nearly 100 different bands on thirteen sound stages spread around the College campus. This post is presented as a guide to help people negotiate the ins and outs of attending Merlefest getting the most enjoyment from it as possible.
Planning: It’s never too early to start planning your visit to Merlefest. Fortunately, the folks who run the festival give you lots of help on the Merlefest web site. If you download and print the material now, you can study the schedule in order to decide who you want to see as well as where and when you want to see them. Many performers at Merlefest, even major ones, play multiple shows at different stages. Only the major headliners who close Watson Stage in evenings and some other special events are limited to one performance. If you want to see Robert Plant and the Dream Band, Randy Travis, or Lyle Lovett, you’ll have to do it at the Watson Stage. Otherwise, you may have several choices, making it easier for you to schedule. There are two essential tools you need to download and print in order to get it all: The Schedules and The Map. There’s also a broad scale Festival Grid showing you day by day every performance taking place. Combining these tools with the Lineup grid will give you a good idea of who’s appearing where. This nifty new tool has a small clock icon attached to the name of each performer. Click on the clock, and you’ll see all the venues and times for each specific performer. This little tool can help you avoid conflicts for performers who are must see people for you. Check it out! For instance, you can see The Infamous Stringdusters at the Midnight Jam in Walker Center on Saturday night (extra ticket) or on the Watson Stage early Sunday afternoon. The Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band has shows on the Watson Stage on Friday afternoon and the Traditional Stage on Saturday. (If you want to get up close and personal, the Traditional Stage will be more satisfactory for you.) Furthermore, bands with a web presence have live links on this page, enabling you to check them out, hear their music, and make more informed decisions. Use the links provided in the lineup section and YouTube to check out bands you don’t know, but would like to know more about before you commit an hour or more to seeing them.
Getting Around: The Wilkes Community College campus is large, spread out and hilly. If you arrive by shuttle from the remote parking areas or campgrounds providing shuttle service, you’ll be dropped by the main entrance and ticketing area. Once the gates open this process runs pretty quickly. The less stuff you carry in the faster you’ll get through, as there’s a mandatory bag check. Alcohol is strictly forbidden, so don’t bring any in, nor any open bottles of other liquids. This year the College as implemented a strict NO SMOKING policy for the entire campus. This applies to the festival, also. Leave your tobacco and other smokables outside the gates. As you walk through the gates you find yourself in the midst of the “Shoppes at Merlefest” where you’ll want to spend some time during the festival. Instruments, clothing, toys, art work, and lots more are available here. There’s also an official Merlefest gear tent and the Merlefest Mall, which is the central dispensing point for all CD’s, DVD’s and band gear sold at the festival. This concession is run by the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce, and a $3.00 premium is added to the cost of CD’s. There are two tents nearby where bands are scheduled for signing sessions. Often, if you wait until near the end of a band’s scheduled time, you can get some face time with band members. Particularly those used to the ways of bluegrass are eager to meet and greet their fans. An R&R tent can be found at the back of the main field where you can get a message or just sit in the shade to rest or nap.
It’s quite a distance from the Creekside Stage, located behind the main Watson Stage to Walker Center at the top of the campus and nearby Hillside. In recent years, as we’ve become less mobile, we spend less time at Hillside, but still manage to get up to Walker Center for a couple of shows, because it’s such a good concert venue with fine bands playing there. And it’s air-conditioned. There are also indoor, air-conditioned auditoriums at Mayes Pit and The Lounge. For those wishing to avoid the hike up to the Walker Center, go to Lowes Hall, one of the large buildings surrounding the Plaza. Inside, take the elevator to the top floor. From there, you can walk up a gentle ramp to Walker Center. This is also a good way to get up to the top of the Hillside Stage area. You can then walk down to find a seat and continue walking down through the Plaza to return to the lower areas of the campus. Careful study of the Map will make this route more clear. However, unless you pick one or two venues and stay at them throughout the day, at Merlefest you’re going to walk.
The Stages: Merlefest has thirteen different sound stages, dominated by the main stage – Watson. Placed against a hill with stately trees rising above it, beautifully lit by spotlights, the Watson Stage seats about 6,000 people in reserved seats with a vast field behind the reserved seat area that can accomodate perhaps twenty thousand in all. The reserved seat area of Watson is available to all until 5:00 P.M. After that, only those with reserved seat wrist bands are admitted. At times during the day, the Watson Stage seats appear as a huge empty gulf, but in the evening they are often filled for top acts. A huge JumboTron makes it easy to view performances, even from a distance, and the sound is superb at any distance. Those with strong bladders can often manage to come in just before five and then move from place to place as the seats’ owners appear. As at any festival, you may occupy open seats until their rightful ticket holders arrive. Some of the bands appearing on the Watson Stage this year: Emmit-Nershi Band, The Doobie Brothers, Tony Rice Unit, Tribute to John Hartford, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Sam Bush, Lyle Lovett, The Infamous Stringdusters, Tim O’Brien, and Robert Plant & the Band of Joy.
The Creekside Stage is one of our favorites. Tucked in behind the Watson Stage and close to the instrument displays in the Expo Tent and the giant food tent, it’s a gently sloping amphitheater often kept a little cooler than other venues at Merlefest by its shade trees. The always popular Mando Mania is held there on Saturday afternoon. While often filled, Creekside still provides a more intimate, welcoming environment away from some of the hustle and bustle of other places on campus. This year at Creekside: Jim Lauderdale and Friends, The Kruger Brothers, Tone Blazers, Balsam Range, The Josh Williams Band, The Neighbors, The Snyder Family Band, Pete Wernick & Flexigrass, Scythian, and more.
The Americana Stage: Located on a busy corner in front of Johnson Hall in the middle of the campus, The Americana Stage often attracts and captures people on the way past as well as drawing those wishing to see headline artists in a closer setting. Most seating here is on the ground, which is flat, so consider bringing a folding chair. Sun screen is essential. Some of the band appearing at Americana include: Johnson’s Crossroads, Rusty Knox, The John Hartford String Band, Sarah Jarosz, Casey Driessen, Town Mountain, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Wailin’ Jennies.
Hillside requires a pretty good walk up through the major building complex past the Plaza Stage, where Tut Taylor holds forth with bands wishing to showcase there and often a worthwhile stopping-off place, and below Walker Center on a steep hill. Hillside is most noted for the Saturday afternoon “Album Hour” in which an acoustic band, this year The Waybacks, hosts a group of guests interpreting great rock and roll albums of the past. These have included albums by The Beatles and The Rolling Stones. The name of each year’s album is always a tightly held secret, Hillside is mobbed, and there’s lots of buzz about the show. Hillside tends to attract a younger crowd for many of its acts, but also features top bluegrass bands. This year’s schedule includes: Balsam Range, John Cowan & Friends, Scythian, Donna the Buffalo, The Alison Brown Quartet, and Jim Lauderdale & Friends.
Here’s a list of bluegrass bands playing at Merlefest this year. I don’t want to get into the argument about which one is and which one isn’t a bluegrass band. Sam Bush, Michael Cleveland & Flamekeeper, Balsam Range, Crooked Still, Emmit-Nershi Band, Freight Hoppers, John Hartford String Band, The Infamous Stringdusters, Bill Keith, The Local Boys, The Del McCoury Band, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tim O’Brien, Tony Rice Unit, Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band, Red Molly, Snyder Family Band, Tut Taylor, Town Mountain, Pete & Joan Wernick, Roland White, Josh Williams Band, and Tony Williamson. Oh…and don’t forget Mando Mania. Also, look for special tributes to Bill Monroe and to John Hartford on the Main Stage.
Merlefest can become the highlight of you annual festival trips, or it can be pretty much a disaster for you. The difference lies in your ability to plan your activities and pace yourself, realizing that you can’t possibly see and do everything in one four day weekend. The festival is about much more than the music. Enjoy the various elements available to you, and have a wonderful time.