Skip to content

EdNC. Essential education news. Important stories. Your voice.

“My Name Is Merle” documents western N.C.’s internationally-renowned music festival

Voiced by Amazon Polly

This is the 35th year the grounds of Wilkes Community College have been used to host MerleFest, an internationally-renowned music festival and fundraiser.

It’s also the year EdNC is releasing a full-length documentary about the festival and the community that is the heart and spirit of it.

When EdNC’s CEO and Editor-in-Chief Mebane Rash attended MerleFest for the first time in 2019, EdNC was studying the economic impact of the music festival on Wilkes Community College and the region.

While backstage, she met Karen Norris, the daughter of Merle Watson and granddaughter of Doc Watson. Sitting beside Jeff Cox, the president of Wilkes Community College, Rash asked if a documentary had been produced about the festival, which has influenced a whole genre of music.

We believe in stories – and this is the best untold story in North Carolina.

We believe in leadership – and this is a story about the leadership of a horticulture teacher, Doc Watson and his family, the community college, the MerleFest team, and the community.

We believe in impact – not just the impact of this music festival on this community college and this community, but on music as we know and enjoy it across America today.

Mebane Rash, CEO and editor-in-chief of EdNC

Spend time wandering stage aisles and tent-lined paths, and you’ll understand why the festival tagline is “Music, Moments, and Memories.” 

And while music may be the common draw for people, what has transpired through the years is an experience that nurtures deep roots and repeat attendees.

MerleFest 2023 crowds. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Since its inception 35 years ago, MerleFest has generated $19.2 million in funds for college projects, including scholarships for students. The college now offers tuition-free education for two years to every high school graduate in their service area. 

As for the community, MerleFest has an annual economic impact of over $10 million in the region.

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

How MerleFest came to be

When MerleFest started in 1988, it 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.

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

That’s when local leaders Ala Sue Wkye 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 was 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 musician 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.

Music, moments, and memories

Doc Watson may have grown up along the hills of the Blue Ridge mountains, but his legacy didn’t stop there. In his lifetime, Watson won numerous Grammy awards, eventually earning him a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. He is regarded for his finger style and flatpicking skills.

“When you go back to the very beginnings, that flatpicking guitar was Doc. That’s where so much of the guitar playing of that style came from,” Cliff Miller, MerleFest sound engineer, said.

It’s a style that’s difficult to master. Jeff Hanna, founding member of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, said he put in his 10,000 hours but could never play the guitar like Doc.

Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (left) with guest Sam Bush, MerleFest 2022. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Watson is also lauded for his knowledge of traditional American music – or roots music – that includes everything from bluegrass to folk to country to blues to gospel.

Traditional-plus, as Doc and his son Merle called their own music, is traditional Appalachian region music plus whatever else the two wanted to play.  It’s the very music you’ll see played on the stages at MerleFest. 

“So much music that has come out of – especially this part of the country – it’s immigrants’ music. And it’s a beautiful thing,” Hanna said. “It’s that sort of yearning in the voices. And of course, the beautiful harmonies that go with it.”

The various musical genres represented have been the hallmark of MerleFest through the years. It’s that diversity of music echoing through the college campus that makes this four-day festival unique. 

MerleFest has welcomed big names to its stages in years past, including Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, John Prine, James Taylor, and Brandi Carlile.

This year, the lineup features Tanya Tucker, the Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, Little Feat, Miko Marks, Marcus King, the Black Opry Revue, Brothers of a Feather with Chris and Rich Robinson of the Black Crowes, and more. 

Music brings people together. It crosses generations and genres, creating a rich community of shared experiences. That’s what festival attendees will tell you, and it’s why they keep coming back. 

“My Name Is Merle”

In its most simple form, “My Name Is Merle” is a story of connection. In the faces and lives of those who show up year after year, the documentary gives voice to a festival that has continued to shape a region for more than three decades. 

The hour-long documentary weaves together a narrative of music, community, and experiences. It bookmarks the history of the festival and the people through the years who have made it the success it is today. 

You’ll hear from musical artists who credit Doc Watson for shaping their understanding of traditional American music. Voices of past and present festival directors who describe the impact of the event. Some of the faces of the more than 4,500 volunteers are scattered throughout. And of course, the fans. Those who travel 5 miles or more than 5,000 miles to experience a community rooted in music. Music –  that in many ways, grounds us, connects us, and speaks for us when we aren’t quite sure what to say. 

You can watch “My Name Is Merle,” produced by Mebane Rash and Robert Kinlaw, here:

MerleFest 2023 in photos

Scott Sharrard of Little Feat. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Tania Elizabeth of The Avett Brothers. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Dom Flemons. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is a policy analyst for EducationNC.