WILKESBORO, N.C.—When you go to a big music festival such as MerleFest, taking place this weekend in this small town (population 3,413) in the North Carolina foothills, you have to spend a little time just figuring it out. It can be a big job just making sure you’re at the right place at the right time to catch the events you want to see.
And, of course, getting the “vibe” of a place is vital. At Austin, Texas’ South by Southwest, which I wrote about for WORLD back in March, the vibe was über-cool and more than a little frantic. No matter how great it was where you were, it was hard to shake the notion that somewhere else might be greater, the band on some other stage hotter, the party somewhere else cooler.
MerleFest, on the other hand, is much more laid back. Take parking, for example. It’s free, and so are the shuttle buses that take you from the parking lots to the festival itself, compliments of Wilkesboro’s local Boy Scout Troop (which does take donations, if you’re so inclined).
The next thing you notice is that volunteers are everywhere. In fact, MerleFest’s official program boasts of more than “4,400 MerleFest volunteers from all over the world.” On the other hand, because so many come from so far—and therefore know so little—sometimes all the volunteers can offer is a smile.
A case in point: When I arrived at MerleFest on Friday afternoon, I wanted to know where the media interview tent was, because that’s where all the press conferences would take place. So I asked the four women at the information tent near the main entrance. Their response was like one of those cute viral puppy videos on YouTube: They all four cocked their heads sideways and got an endearing but vacant look in their eyes. It was so comical that the man standing next to me burst out in laughter. I looked at him and said (good naturedly, I hoped), “You know, it’s not a good sign when you get blank stares from all four of them.” The volunteers, to their credit, started laughing, too. Quickly recovering, one of them said, “Baby, I don’t have any idea where it is, but I’ve got a map and I bet we can figure it out.”
And, sure enough, we did.
And that, in a way, is the story of MerleFest: They’ve just figured it out. In the beginning, MerleFest wasn’t even MerleFest. The festival’s founder, “B” Townes, was trying to put together a fundraising event so he could improve the gardens at Wilkes Community College. He recruited local bank executive Bill Young to help out. It so happened that Young, an excellent guitar player himself, was a friend of the legendary Doc Watson. Doc’s son Merle had died just a few years before in a tractor accident on the family farm. So by the time the first fundraiser happened in 1988, it had a purpose and a name: MerleFest, and it raised money for the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses.
This is the first year of the festival without Doc Watson, who died in May of last year at age 89. In fact, his last public performance was last year at the “Spirit of Sunday” concert, a MerleFest tradition of Sunday morning gospel music. (This year, by the way, Jim Avett of the Avett Brothers will lead that event.) But even without Doc Watson, MerleFest is likely to remain the stuff of music festival legend. Top acts clamor to perform on one of its 14 stages. Just under 80,000 attended last year, with this year’s attendance likely to top that. Organizers claim the festival brings more than $10 million in economic activity to Wilkesboro, and the festival has donated more than $9 million to the college over the years.
But unlike Austin’s South by Southwest, which started more recently (1992), has grown much bigger, and has diversified into film and technology, MerleFest, now in its 26th year, remains all about the music. In fact, in addition to the bands—which this year include the aforementioned Avett Brothers, plus Enter the Haggis, The Waybacks, Tift Merritt, Michael Martin Murphey (see “Still hangin’ around” from the Feb. 27, 2010 issue of WORLD Magazine), and dozens more—the spectators also play. “The Pickin’ Place” is open throughout the festival for impromptu jam sessions. On Friday afternoon, I hung out for a half-hour at the “Little Pickers” stage, where fast-picking guitar players and high-lonesome tenors performed one after the other—and not one of them was over the age of 16.
So if you see someone at MerleFest carrying around a guitar case, or for that matter wheeling around a big stand-up bass, he might be with one of the bands. On the other hand, he might just be looking for a jam.
It’s just one more way that the folks at MerleFest are figuring it out as they go along.