WILKESBORO, N.C.—This year’s outdoor festival season kicked off in April with MerleFest in the Appalachian town of Wilkesboro, N.C. (pop. 3,413). It went on without its founder, guitar player Doc Watson, who died last May at age 89. Named for Watson’s son Merle, it drew nearly 80,000 people and has raised more than $9 million in its 26-year history. This year’s festival became a tribute to Watson himself.
“In the beginning, MerleFest was just a collection of Doc’s friends coming together because Doc asked, and because it was a good cause,” said Jerry Douglas, the world’s premiere dobroist who has played at all 26 MerleFests. “But a lot of us keep coming back because of the family feel of MerleFest. 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.”
Established and emerging acts covet an invitation: This year featured the Avett Brothers, Michael Martin Murphey, Sam Bush, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, The Waybacks, and dozens more.
Doc Watson’s last public performance was a set of gospel music at last year’s MerleFest, and a number of bands sprinkle gospel music into their sets. The Snyder Family Band played “Listen to His Word” to an appreciative crowd at the Watson Stage and made a point of letting fans know that the purpose of their music is “to glorify God.” In fact, the band’s website displays prominently a part of the Westminster Catechism: “The chief end of man is to glorify God and to enjoy Him forever.”
That’s something, almost everyone who knew MerleFest’s founder agrees, Doc Watson is doing right now.