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MerleFest 2024 brings Old Crow Medicine Show, Lukas Nelson

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MerleFest, an internationally-renowned music festival, wrapped Sunday, April 28 with main stage performances by Lukas Nelson + POTR and Nickel Creek.

Several festival attendees said it was the best MerleFest they’d been to in years.  

The festival, which draws around 75,000 attendees over four days, is hosted on the campus of Wilkes Community College and has generated over $20 million in funds for college projects, including student scholarships, since its inception 36 years ago. It also has an annual economic impact of over $10 million in the region. 

This year’s performances included Old Crow Medicine Show, Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway, Turnpike Troubadours, Larkin Poe, Brandy Clark, Steep Canyon Rangers, Bela Fleck, and the Teskey Brothers. 

MerleFest history

MerleFest has a unique history. 

When it started in 1988, MerleFest was going to be a one-time benefit to raise money for the gardens of Wilkes Community College. “B” Townes was the horticulture instructor at the time and had a vision to create 15 gardens that would serve as laboratories for his students.

Former Festival Director “B” Townes (left) with Old Crow Medicine Show’s Ketch Secor. Townes celebrated his birthday at MerleFest this year. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

But 15 gardens meant additional funding – something the college didn’t have in its budget. 

That’s when local leaders Ala Sue Wyke and Bill Young suggested a benefit concert with Grammy-award-winning musician and songwriter Doc Watson. Watson lived nearby in Deep Gap and had been blind since he was a toddler.

The two local leaders thought the influential musician might be interested in raising funds to support the gardens, particularly since one of the gardens would be specifically for blind individuals. The horticulture instructor called it a “garden of the senses.”

Watson generously agreed to do the concert, and by spring of 1988, the first event sold out, with many of Doc’s friends playing the two-day festival.

In the early years, the event was named the Merle Watson Memorial Festival – a tribute to Doc Watson’s son, Merle, who tragically passed away in a tractor accident in 1985.

When Kay Crouch, band member for Strictly Clean and Decent, wrote Townes a letter in 1995 asking when the next dates for “MerleFest” would be, he knew they had a new name for the event. Townes liked the name so much he asked the Watson family about renaming the event, and they agreed.

EdNC’s documentary about MerleFest by Robert Kinlaw

The morphing of MerleFest

When the festival first started, no one knew the success it would see in the coming years.

From two stages and a few acts with Watson’s closest musician friends, the festival has grown to over 12 stages and 100 acts throughout the four days. 

MerleFest draws crowds and repeat attendees from all over the country, some even crossing oceans.  

If you talk with longtime festival goers, you’ll discover how important the festival is to them — never missing a year except for extenuating circumstances like attending the birth of a grandchild. 

And while the music is important, with stages echoing everything from bluegrass to folk to country to blues to rock to gospel, it’s the atmosphere and experience that has attendees coming back year after year. 

“You feel the warmth and generosity of Doc’s spirit wafting through the grounds,” Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile said while closing out MerleFest. 

Chris Thile of Nickel Creek. Courtesy of Jim Gavenus

Watson was a music icon, and his legacy extends far beyond the Blue Ridge Mountains. In his lifetime, Watson won numerous Grammy awards, eventually earning him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award and a National Medal of Arts in 1997. He is regarded for his finger style and flatpicking skills.

Watson died in 2012, but his lessons live on. 

Thile said Watson was always down for a pick and was someone who encouraged young musicians. 

In fact, every year, some of MerleFest’s musical lineups take their performances into the local schools. 

Sarah McCombie of Chatham Rabbits was one of the performers to play the schools this year. A former educator, McCombie said music is something for everyone, whether they listen, play, or write songs. 

“Music is great for every child, but especially for the kids that were like me growing up that didn’t play sports or weren’t stellar in math class,” McCombie said. “It gives an outlet for kids that are the creatives … that have big feelings.”

Watson didn’t just encourage young musicians, he was also a human being who listened, Thile said. “And I think we’d all do well to listen as well as Doc listened,” he said.

Rural-serving institutions and partnerships

Community colleges are lauded as being workforce engines for their communities and state, adapting quickly to serve the immediate workforce needs of their service areas. 

“Community colleges improve the health of our communities we serve,” said Wilkes Community College’s new president, Dr. Mike Rodgers. “If you pluck a community college out of anywhere they are, there’s a large void and a large gap.”

Adapting to local and statewide needs comes from being immersed in the community, something that is especially true for rural institutions. Of North Carolina’s 58 community colleges, 40 are considered rural-serving institutions. 

Community college leaders will tell you that in order to have collective impact, it takes collective response and partnerships.

MerleFest is one example of that collective response. 

“Over 70 community and college organizations participate and benefit financially from their participation,” Festival Director Wes Whitson said.

And over 4,500 volunteers, both locally and nationally, give of their time and talents to make the event a success.  This year marked the largest volunteer turnout in the festival’s history. 

The event also includes sponsorships and resources from outside agencies and businesses. MerleFest’s presenting sponsor is Window World, a local Wilkes County business. Their sponsorship helps keep the festival financially sound, according to Whitson.  

Although the college’s gardens have long been endowed, the funds raised by MerleFest continue to have an impact across the region, especially on the students of Wilkes Community College. Some of the monies raised go directly to student scholarships. 

“It allows us to support students at such a high level,” Rodgers said. 

In recent years, the college has been able to provide tuition-free education for two years to every high school graduate in their service area. 

From left to right: Dr. Gordon Burns, former WCC president; Dr. Jeff Cox, former WCC president and current North Carolina Community College System president; and Dr. Mike Rodgers, the new WCC president. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Music, moments, and memories

Each year, EdNC asks attendees what they like most about MerleFest. The answers vary, although responses often mention the diverse musical genres on stage or the festival atmosphere. 

“Honestly, it feels like family,” said one attendee. 

It’s an atmosphere of which Watson likely would have been proud. Before he died, Watson said he appreciated people’s love of what he could do with his guitar, but more than anything, he wanted to be remembered as a decent human being rather than a flashy guitar player.

“Just one of the people.”

Doc Watson, excerpt from MerleFest guidebook

MerleFest artists in photos

Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.