Springtime in the mountains means MerleFest

Spring in the mountains blossoms musically with MerleFest. This year’s no exception, with a bouquet of musicians performing everything from blues, Americana and folk to old-time, blues, jazz and even mariachi. Calling MerleFest a bluegrass festival is like plucking one daisy out of a meadow bursting with variety.

The legendary Doc Watson jams at last year’s MerleFest. Photo by Jason Sandford.

MerleFest is low-key, folksy and fun. Here are a few basics if you plan to attend this year:
The maestro: Legendary flat-picker Doc Watson just celebrated year 86 and shows no signs of slowing down. He’s got a full schedule of upcoming performances (including a show this summer at the Biltmore Estate’s Summer Concert Series) and last year released a new album of some of his best songs recorded over 40 years.

MerleFest is named for Eddy Merle Watson, Doc’s son, who died in a tractor accident in 1985. The event, spread around the campus of Wilkes Community College, keeps a down-home, respectful tone that harkens back to this humble start.

Doc Watson’s appearances at the festival are jam-packed with fans eager to pay homage to the legend of Deep Gap. Perhaps the best time to see him is Saturday evening. This year, Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence and Bill Mathis are just a few of the friends who will be joining Watson on stage. Don’t miss Doc.
The music: There are any number of ways to attack a music festival. At MerleFest, you can pick a favorite stage, or perhaps you just want to focus on newcomers. You might break down this year’s lineup by starting with festival newbies—three to watch include Martha Scanlan, Broken Wire and Cadillac Sky. Scanlan’s one of the most intriguing newcomers, with poetic lyrics and a high, haunting voice. If you want to check out up-and-comers who are back for a second go-round, check out the Lovell Sisters and Bearfoot. Last year, both groups featured great original material, youthful energy and sweet, sweet harmonies. Or go with North Carolina-based bands—Polecat Creek, the Carolina Chocolate Drops and the soulful Tift Merritt.
The memories: There are lots of ways to make memories at MerleFest. The first one is easy—bring some friends, camp out, have a good time. Camping options include a local Masonic lodge within walking distance of the festival. Remember that the festival is alcohol free—no alcohol sold on festival grounds and none allowed in (your bags will be searched). You won’t find a more relaxed, friendly festival vibe than the one at MerleFest.

Bring your camera. You have to navigate some crowds, but even without a fancy press pass, you can get darn close to your favorite acts. Many of the musicians stick around for autograph signing sessions after their sets, so bring a Sharpie and something to sign.

And be prepared for the weather. This spring we’ve already seen some wild swings, so come ready for everything from bright spring sun to chilly evening breezes. A couple of rounds of severe lightning storms sent crowds scurrying for cover at last year’s festival and created some muddy trekking afterward. 

who: Merlefest
what: Annual bluegrass/roots/Americana/oldtime/folk festival
where: Campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro
when: Thursday, April 23 to Sunday, April 25 (tickets range from single-day pass on Thursday to $35, $45 on Friday, $50 on Saturday, $40 on Sunday. www.merlefest.org)

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