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After canceling in 2020, MerleFest returns to Wilkes Community College

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“It’s been a dadgum year,” a Balsam Range band member said before closing out the set at this year’s MerleFest celebration. 

Similar sentiments were echoed by many artists as they took the stage over the weekend. But those sentiments were expressed with deep gratitude for the chance to be playing a live music festival.

April 2020 marked the first time in 32 years that MerleFest was canceled. And it would be another 17 months before artists, volunteers, and festival-goers would meet again at Wilkes Community College (WCC).

On Sept. 16, the Po’ Ramblin Boys kicked off the four-day event on the Watson stage with Sturgill Simpson wrapping up the night.

Sturgill Simpson on stage at MerleFest 2021. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

MerleFest is an internationally renowned music festival and fundraiser. It has deep roots in the western region of North Carolina – with both music and gardening.

The music festival started when Wilkes Community College horticulture instructor, “B” Townes, wanted to raise money for the campus gardens. And 33 years later, it’s no longer just a fundraiser for the college.

MerleFest has a $12 million annual economic impact on the community, said Jeff Cox, president of Wilkes Community College.

Before bringing everyone together this year, festival organizers worked with local, state, and federal public health officials to put safety protocols in place. Attendees had to show proof of full vaccination or test negative for COVID-19 no more than 72 hours before arriving at the event.

MerleFest 2021. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Despite the adjustments to this year’s event, the same spirit of celebration and community was alive and well.

A gathering of friends

Madison Bridges and Diya Sashidhar have been friends since they were roommates in college at North Carolina State University. 

Madison Bridges (left) and Diya Sashidhar at MerleFest 2021. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Bridges grew up in Cleveland County and has attended MerleFest with her family since middle school.

“I remember my first MerleFest, and that I really wanted to see Elvis Costello play,” Bridges said. She’s been a regular festival-goer since. 

Like Bridges, Sashidhar also grew up in North Carolina, moving to Cumberland County when she was two.

But this is the first time Sashidhar has attended MerleFest. She lives in Seattle, where she is working on a doctorate in mathematics at the University of Washington. 

Sashidhar (left) and Larry Keen, president of Fayetteville Technical Community College. Sashidhar spotted Keen’s hat and shared with him that she had taken math classes at the college while she was in high school. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

She has always wanted to attend the music festival, but the April timing never worked for her school schedule. This year’s September festival date gave Sashidhar the opportunity to fly from Seattle and attend.

Sashidhar said MerleFest was great, and she loved getting to experience new artists. 

“I’ve liked some of these artists’ recorded music, but seeing them live has been really life-changing,” she said.

I asked Bridges how this year’s MerleFest compared to previous years. 

She said the crowds seemed a bit smaller but praised festival organizers for putting on the event and making it safe for everyone.

“It really shows their resilience,” Bridges said. “They were up against a lot of odds.” 

Before I left the two friends to enjoy their evening, I asked Bridges why she kept coming back year after year. 

“It’s the music … the tradition of it all.”

Buddy Melton of Balsam Range on stage at MerleFest 2021. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

The music of MerleFest

Over 80 artists performed at MerleFest 2021.

LeAnn Rimes on stage at MerleFest 2021. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Shovels and Rope. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Mavis Staples. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
JOHNNYSWIM. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Plans for MerleFest 2022 are underway. The music festival will be held April 28-May 1, 2022.

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is the Director of Postsecondary Attainment for EducationNC.