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M is for Merlefest

April 15, 2015

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The countdown has begun.  A week from tomorrow, Merlefest 2015  opens.  I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve attended this festival just up the road in Wilkes County, but I know that I’ve also gotten to take a few people along for their first experience too. Merlefest is not just a little local festival either. Lots of people come from all over the United States every year. The campgrounds are full; in fact, lots of people stay up into the wee hours playing music after the shows end each evening.

Merlefest, for those who don’t know, is a four-day festival started about 27 years ago in Memory of Merle Watson, the son of the incomparable Doc Watson. Held at Wilkes Community College, this festival is one of the most family-friendly eclectic music experiences I’ve even seen.  So many people who have avoided attending, expecting a crowd and a mess are surprised when they finally discover quite the opposite.

Throughout the day, performers play on at least a dozen stages, and as the day wind downs, everything wraps up at the Watson Stage.  Yes, there’s plenty of bluegrass and old time music, but there’s plenty more. Some of the headliners this year include the Avett Brothers, from up the interstate, Marshall Tucker Band, Robert Earl Keen, Lee Ann Womack and Dwight Yoakum.  The regulars include Sam Bush (my mandolin hero), The Kruger Brothers, Scythian, Blue Highway, and the Steep Canyon Rangers.

One of my favorite events is the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour. This band out of California surprises the crowd by covering an entire classic album, bringing in the other major performers.  They’ve played Abbey Road, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan and the Band, and last year Crosby, Stills, Nash, and Young.  They issue “Google-proof” clues, so the speculation flies, but the audience doesn’t know for sure until the opening notes.  (Check Hillside Album Hour on Youtube to see the crowd erupting when “Purple Haze” starts up three years ago.

Even with the huge crowds, parking off site is simple since the local scouts and church groups provide bus rides back and forth.  The food venues (also churches and local organizations) is tasty and affordable. (My favorite–the grilled chicken plate). Even the port-a-johns are more like little mobile homes. They’re clean, heated, and even have sugar scrub for your hands and little vases of flowers by the sinks.

The hardest part of attending Merlefest is deciding where to go. Sometimes my favorites overlap. Even when you just walk around the campus, there’s music everywhere.

This will be the second or third year without Doc.  His spirit’s still there, along with his grandson Richard and so many of the musicians he mentored over the years.

This year, for the first time, I’m signed up as a volunteer. I’ll be escorting people up to the Watson Stage for photo ops.  I know by now to pack well–folding chair, and sun screen.  I’ve also learned the hard way how much the temperature varies during the day.  I’ve gone in sandals and wrapped my feet in toilet tissue by the end of the night (not a pretty sight).  I’ve bought hoodies before too.  This year, I’ll have my backpack loaded in advance, my camera battery charged, and my schedule mapped out for the shows I don’t want to miss.

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