“It’s been an interesting 18 months,” Ted Hagaman says. “No doubt about that.”
Over that time, the MerleFest festival director and his staff have dealt with the melancholy of the annual music event’s first cancellation in its 33 years, plus the rampant uncertainty as they waited for conditions to improve with the COVID-19 pandemic.
Now, with Wilkes Community College ready to welcome musicians and fans back to Wilkesboro for the long Thursday-Sunday, Sept. 16-19, weekend, Hagaman & Co. face new challenges. In response to the recent increase in coronavirus infections caused by the delta variant, the festival announced on Aug. 17 that all attendees must provide proof of vaccination or a negative COVID-19 test taken within 72 hours of entering the event, and that additional safety measures will be implemented throughout the festival.
The morning that news went public, Hagaman spoke with Xpress about the difficult past year and a half, and the decision to proceed with the updated protocols — a stance that’s receiving support from this year’s performers, including multiple Asheville-area artists.
When it became clear in March 2020 that MerleFest would need to be canceled, the first calls the staff made were to the musicians who were slated to perform, informing them of the decision and inviting them to remain in the lineup for whenever the next MerleFest could occur. Hagaman says roughly 50% of the artists were able lock in to the September dates when they were announced in mid-April 2021, with the other half forced to decline due to prior commitments. The openings allowed for new headliner additions in Sturgill Simpson and Tedeschi Trucks Band, as well as other fresh faces.
“Naturally, we’re going to have the crowd favorites, but we’re going to have a lot of new artists that have never played at MerleFest before,” Hagaman says.
But as COVID-19 infection rates began to climb and events including the New Orleans Jazz & Heritage Festival were canceled, it became clear to Hagaman and his colleagues that MerleFest would need to adapt if it was going to take place this year. In turn, they began working closely with local and state health departments, whose leaders have provided guidance on how to proceed.
“And then on top of that, we started getting calls from a lot of artists and, in some cases, their agents, stating, ‘We need you to [put in stricter protocols] in order for us to play,’” Hagaman says. “We also started seeing a lot of our sister festivals [enacting those protocols], so we realized that this is the new norm, at least for a while, and if we’re going to be a part of it, we need to do the necessary things to take care of people.”
With children under 12 currently not approved to receive the vaccine, many of MerleFest’s youth activities have been dropped or scaled back. As further protection for the artists and to reduce crowding, side-stage seating and backstage tours have been eliminated. Other precautions include a daily attestation for staff, volunteers and food service workers to ensure that none of them are experiencing COVID-related symptoms or have been exposed to the virus.
“We won’t please everyone with this,” says Hagaman, who encourages attendees to have their vaccination or negative test documentation ready for a quick, seamless festival entrance. “But everybody knows now what the protocols are going to be, so we ask for their support and patience.”
Veterans and rookies
Carol Rifkin wasn’t at the inaugural MerleFest in 1988 due to work responsibilities, and she also stayed home the years when her two children were born. But the Asheville-based multi-instrumentalist and vocalist has performed at all other iterations, during which she’s become an integral part of the festival.
“It started with a purpose,” she says. “To celebrate Doc [Watson], who’s probably North Carolina’s best-known musician. And I think because it’s him, there was just this standard of what it was going to be. It’s always been well organized, and everyone has always wanted to play at it. And it’s a gathering for the performers as much as the audience.”
Thinking back over highlights from the festival’s history, Rifkin says it’s “tough to beat The Avett Brothers on a Saturday night,” Emmylou Harris’ many performances or the honor of introducing Linda Ronstadt on the main stage. But her most memorable experiences were with the late, great festival founder himself — including Watson’s final performance in 2012, shortly before his death.
In addition to partaking in this year’s Doc Watson Performing Arts Showcase on Friday, Sept. 17, Rifkin will host her annual Women Who Sing & Play Traditional event on Sunday, Sept. 19. This year’s featured artists are Sheila Kay Adams, Kelli Mae Redmond, Deborah Jean Sheets, Kelly Sheets Snider, Mary Flower and Lucy Allen.
Along with veterans like Rifkin, the 2021 edition will welcome such debut attendees as Haywood County’s The Maggie Valley Band, fronted by sisters Caroline and Whitney Miller. According to Caroline, her sister vowed to hold out going to the annual gathering until the band was invited to perform; Caroline remembers worrying that it would mean they’d never get to go. But in 2020, the invitation arrived. Though news of that year’s cancellation was disheartening, it wound up being somewhat of a blessing in disguise.
“It gave us time to get our ducks in a row,” Caroline says. “Everything we’ll play, we’ve released since the pandemic, except one song from 2018. We’ve kept expanding and feel like we’re truly The Maggie Valley Band now, so we’re going to MerleFest more confident than we would have been a year ago.”
The Millers are sad not to see John Prine, who had been scheduled to headline the festival last year but died from COVID-19 complications in April 2020. But like Rifkin, Caroline is thrilled that Mavis Staples, whom she identifies as one of her favorite singers, was able to commit to the 2021 festival. Caroline is also excited to witness the evolution of Margo Price, whom she saw at an intimate, 100-person show in 2014 when Price was with her band The Pricetags.
In addition to their own Sept. 18 set, The Maggie Valley Band says they’re looking forward to being there with fellow local musician friends the Moore Brothers, Balsam Range and Andrew Scotchie & The River Rats.
“It’s fun to see that Western North Carolina representation,” Caroline says.
For this year’s full lineup, visit avl.mx/ac1.