MerleFest began as a way to raise funds for the Wilkes Community College gardens, memorialize Eddy Merle Watson and honor his father and musical partner, Doc Watson.
It grew to become an internationally renowned music festival and fundraiser with an annual economic impact of over $10 million to the region.
Before he was MerleFest’s first director, “B” Townes began his career at WCC teaching horticulture. Driven by the goal of raising capital to improve the campus gardens, Townes wanted to hold a concert in the fall of 1987 as a fundraiser. It was going to be a “one-time, one-night, one-man show.”
Townes recruited Ala Sue Wyke, a WCC Gardens board member and Bill Young, retired from Northwestern Bank and a guitar picker who happened to have a friend named Doc Watson. In October of 1987, the three met with Watson, who generously agreed to do the concert in WCC’s John A. Walker Center the next November.
“That was less than a month away,” said Townes, now retired. “I naively said, ‘Great,’ and then learned the next morning from Bud Mayes, the manager of the Walker Center, that you do not simply decide to have a concert today and fill up all of those 1,100 seats tomorrow!”
Doc’s wife, RosaLee, and daughter, Nancy, suggested a festival at the end of April and the group began planning a two-day, multiple artist event for April 30 and May 1, 1988, with all proceeds going to the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses. Townes focused on logistics of organizing a festival while more and more of Doc and Merle’s musician friends committed to play. It was soon sold out.
The inaugural two-day festival had two stages and a schedule written hours before artists performed, along with an indoors workshop. It featured Doc, Earl Scruggs, fiddler Jim Shumate (a Wilkes County native), Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, Grandpa Jones, Marty Stuart, Mike Cross, New Grass Revival, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, The Smith Sisters, John Hartford, Mark O’Connor, Jerry Douglas, George Hamilton IV, and others.
Shortly after the first festival, Townes attended the International Bluegrass Music Association’s conference in Owensboro, Ky., and was inspired by its musical outreach program with area schools and other innovations that influenced development of the festival here.
The second festival in 1989 had a bluegrass-heavy lineup on the newly-built Doc & Merle Watson Theatre. It also included inaugural use of the adjacent Cabin Stage as a “tweener” to cover the larger stage’s set changes. Featured artists included Hot Rize, Jim and Jesse and The Virginia Boys, Mac Wiseman and the Wildwood Express, Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys and Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys. EmmyLou Harris performed with a young Vince Gill playing backup.
The 1990 festival branched out from pure bluegrass to include more folk music and blues with musicians such as Gamble Rogers, Happy Traum, Roy Book Binder, Etta Baker, and Robin and Linda Williams. This occurred after musical host Doc Watson said he wanted a greater variety of traditional music and more opportunity for musicians to jam in unique combinations.
In 1991, the festival expanded to four days and began other important additions. The lineup included Ronnie Milsap, Kathy Mattea, Marty Stuart, Emmylou Harris, Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver, Jerry Douglas, Roland White, Béla Fleck, Tony Rice Unit, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan and the Red Clay Ramblers and Pete Seeger. Alison Krauss got an early career boost by playing with her band, Union Station.
In 1992, WCC staff collaborated with N.C. Public Television to tape all four days of the festival. This captured a jam with Doc Watson and Tim O’Brien singing “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” backed by Jerry Douglas on Dobro, Pete Wernick on banjo and the triple fiddles of Stuart Duncan, Mark O’Connor and Rickie Simpkins.
Beausoleil, Mary Chapin Carpenter and bluesmen Cephas and Wiggins were among festival first-timers in 1993. The festival’s shuttle bus system began in 1993, as a partnership with local Boy Scout troops who provide it with their buses and Scouts as helpers. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest also debuted in 1993. Gillian Welch won the first country category of the contest.
Newcomers at the 1994 festival included Sweethearts of the Rodeo, Junior Brown, J.D. Crowe and the New South, Iris Dement, Eustace Conway and Donna the Buffalo.
The event was known as the Merle Watson Memorial Festival until 1995, when it was changed to MerleFest. This resulted from Kay Crouch of the band Strictly Clean and Decent, which had performed at the 1994 festival, asking Townes for the next dates of “MerleFest” and describing the band’s vehicle breakdown on N.C. 18 in Boomer while on the way home from the ’94 event. The Watson family gave its enthusiastic support and MerleFest became the official name.
The 1995 lineup included Ricky Skaggs, the Tractors, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Junior Brown and the legendary John Hartford.
John Prine made his first appearance in 1996. Other performers then included Alvin Youngblood Hart, New Lost City Ramblers, Darrell Scott and Dave Van Ronk, along with regulars John Cowan, Peter Rowan, Ricky Skaggs, Frosty Morn, Jerry Douglas, David Holt, Sam Bush, Tony Rice and Bill Monroe.
MerleFest 1997 celebrated the diversity the event is known for by showcasing the “Afro-Celtic” sounds of the Laura Love Band, Scottish folk music of the Rankin Family and Natalie MacMaster, and Cajun sounds of Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys. Others there included the Dixie Chicks, Emmylou Harris, Arlo Guthrie, Alison Krauss and Ricky Skaggs.
A construction crew raised the Doc and Merle Watson Theatre about six feet prior to the 1998 festival. This greatly improved visibility, added new wings to make more space for audience seating and artist hospitality was well-timed because the lower campus was flooded by heavy rains just days before the festival started. The Hillside Stage moved to its fourth and current location in 1998, and became MerleFest’s largest daytime venue
On the same Saturday afternoon at MerleFest 1999, Leftover Salmon played to thousands on the Hillside Stage; a thousand fans packed the Walker Center for the Nashville Bluegrass band; blues artists Catfish Keith and Roy Book Binder were on the Austin Stage; and Doc Watson led “Doc’s Jam” on the Watson Stage.
MerleFest 2000 brought a paved road from Hillside Stage to the on-campus RV campground, and the R&R Tent. Following the largest single-day attendance ever on “Dolly Parton Saturday” of MerleFest 2001, MerleFest 2002 witnessed additional major improvements in the festival infrastructure for more general admission.
Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck, Bruce Hornsby, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band were among artists at MerleFest 2003.
MerleFest 2004 featured a special Earl Scruggs birthday set. Scruggs was joined by Doc Watson and Vince Gill. Doc also joined Rosanne Cash on Johnny Cash classics and she sang a song she wrote in memory of her father. The Avett Brothers took their show beyond the stage and Natalie MacMaster was also a big hit. There was a surprise appearance by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones with the John Cowan Band.
MerleFest 2005 celebrated the beginnings of bluegrass by hosting a reunion of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Many former members played, including Earl Scruggs, Bobby Hicks, Wilkes County native Jim Shumate, Richard Greene, Tony Ellis, Del McCoury, Roland White, Blake Williams and Peter Rowan.
Grateful Dead founding member Bob Weir drew one of the most spirited crowds in years at MerleFest 2006. He performed with The Waybacks on several Dead classics, inspiring creation of the Hillside Album Hour. Pete and Mike Seeger were both at the festival for a Woody Guthrie tribute.
MerleFest 2007 saw major infrastructure changes, including an increase in green space and reduction in cars parked on the festival grounds. Elvis Costello and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band had a notable performance.
The inaugural Hillside Album Hour was Saturday afternoon of MerleFest 2008 as the Waybacks and John Cowan performed all of the songs on “Led Zeppelin II.” The Avett Brothers drove the crowd wild during a Friday night performance at the Watson Stage.
Music icon Linda Ronstadt closed out the 2009 festival with a performance of traditional mariachi songs on the Watson Stage. MerleFest 2009, amid a recession, was the first year that more tickets were given away than were sold. This led to a serious evaluation of the festival’s future.
The festival team agreed not to cut back on quality of the event or diminish the experience There were strong performances by Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, The Avett Brothers, Dierks Bentley, Little Feat, Rhonda Vincent and Scythian in 2010.
The “traditional plus” celebration continued at MerleFest 2011, with the Zac Brown Band, Lyle Lovett, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Randy Travis, The Doobie Brothers, Jerry Douglas and Scythian.
The 25th edition of MerleFest in 2012 drew fans from all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and 15 foreign countries. It was the last festival featuring Doc Watson, who died on May 29, 2012. Doc’s last public performance was the “Spirit of Sunday” set on Creekside Stage with the Nashville Bluegrass Band.
MerleFest 2013 celebrated the life and music of Doc Watson. Performers included the Avett Brothers, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale, Kruger Brothers, and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s John McEuen and Jeff Hanna. The Del McCoury Band and the Preservation Hall Jazz Band appeared together. There was a Leon Russell and Charlie Daniels show and a standing-room-only songwriting workshop hosted by the Avett Brothers.
MerleFest 2014 had the festival’s largest lineup ever — over 130 artists who included Alan Jackson, Merle Haggard, Old Crow Medicine Show, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Steep Canyon Rangers and Ricky Skaggs.
Multi-instrumentalist Willie Watson, Robert Earl Keen and Dwight Yoakam closed out the festival on the last day of MerleFest 2015. Performers at MerleFest 2016 included John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, John Oates, Brandi Carlile and more.
Aggregate participation at MerleFest’s 30th celebration in 2017 exceeded 83,000. From the Watson Stage, Zac Brown talked about growing up coming to MerleFest and watching his musical idols. Other artists there included the Avett Brothers, Béla Fleck, Marty Stuart and Transatlantic Sessions hosted by Jerry Douglas and featuring James Taylor,
The 120-plus performers at MerleFest 2018 included Kris Kristofferson, Jamey Johnson, the Mavericks, Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Robert Earl Keen and Rhiannon Giddens and the Steep Canyon Rangers with special guest Steve Martin.
The 2019 festival brought electric collaborations and shows by artists such as Wynonna & the Big Noise, Amos Lee, Tyler Childers, Sam Bush Band, Brandi Carlile and the Avett Brothers.
The spring 2020 festival didn’t happen due to the COVID-19 pandemic so it’s happening in fall 2021.
MerleFest will return to its normal time of year in 2022, with the event scheduled April 28 to May 1.