WILKESBORO, N.C.—It’s hard to imagine MerleFest without Doc Watson. But the guitar flatpicking legend who helped found MerleFest as a tribute to his son Merle died last May, and the organizers of this past weekend’s festival, which drew about 80,000 people to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains in North Carolina, not only had to imagine it, but pull it off.
And they did it, said Jerry Douglas, by asking a simple question: “What would Doc do?”
Douglas is in a pretty good position to answer that question. He is widely considered the best dobroist in the world. He’s won 13 Grammy awards and the Country Music Association’s Musician of the Year award three times. But more to the point here: He’s played at all 26 MerleFests, dating back to 1988.
“In the beginning, MerleFest was just a collection of Doc’s friends coming together because Doc asked, because we all knew Merle, and because it was a good cause,” Douglas said. Proceeds for the festival go to Wilkes Community College, and the event has raised more than $9 million for the college over the years. Last year, it also raised about $440,000 for local civic groups that provide everything from food to transportation for the event.
“But the reason a lot of us keep coming back is because of the family feel of MerleFest,” Douglas said. “It’s one of the first festivals of the season, and I get to see my old friends and get caught up. A lot of these guys I see year after year.”
As if to make the point, our interview gets interrupted when Sam Bush, who many consider the best mandolin player in the world and who has also played every MerleFest, sneaks up behind Douglas and gives him a hug.
In an effort to keep the Friends-of-Doc feel alive, most of this year’s MerleFest performers either played a Doc Watson song during their sets or told stories about Watson to the crowd. Michael Martin Murphey, for example, played “Lost River” during his Saturday afternoon set. It was a song he had played with Watson on With the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. 2. He told the crowd, “Doc was blind and couldn’t see my long hair, but he had a way of seeing into your soul, and he always treated me with kindness and respect.”
Kindness and respect—for traditional music, for the audiences, and for their fellow musicians—are a big part of what it takes to get invited to MerleFest, according to Ted Hageman, the festival organizer. “We have sort of a secret sauce we use when we’re putting together the line-up,” he said. “But a lot of our decisions often come down to asking, ‘Is this something Doc would like?’”
One thing Watson liked was gospel music. In fact, Hageman said, “Doc loved gospel music, and it’s well represented here.” A number of bands sprinkle gospel music into their sets. The Snyder Family Band, for example, played “Listen to His Word” to an appreciative crowd at the Watson Stage on Saturday afternoon, and they made a point of letting their fans know that the purpose of their music is “to glorify God.” In fact, the band’s website displays prominently the first answer from the Westminster Shorter Catechism: “Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy Him forever.”
But if gospel is a side dish for most of the festival, it’s the main course on Sunday morning, which began with a devotional service by Rev. Roy Dobyns, pastor of the First Baptist Church of Boone, N.C., and MerleFest’s chaplain. Following Dobyns was gospel music by the Nashville Bluegrass Band and the Avett Family. They’re continued a tradition that Watson started himself. In fact, playing gospel music on Sunday morning at MerleFest 2012 was the last public performance Watson ever gave.
It’s one tradition, everyone agrees, they are sure Doc Watson would want to live on.