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Wilkes Community College’s MerleFest 2022 brings Emmylou Harris, Josh Turner

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  • MerleFest 2022 wraps, closing out the 34th year of the internationally renowned music festival @Wilkes_CC. Headliners included Josh Turner, Emmylou Harris, and Old Crow Medicine Show.
  • Wilkes Community College held its 34th MerleFest. The music festival is internationally renowned and the primary fundraiser for the college's foundation. Read how the festival supports the students of @Wilkes_CC.
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After four days of “music, moments, and memories,” MerleFest 2022 has come to a close.

This year marked the 34th annual music festival hosted by Wilkes Community College (WCC) in Wilkesboro. Over 90 artists hit festival stages from April 28-May 1, including Emmylou Harris, Josh Turner, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Rissi Palmer, Old Crow Medicine Show, Eli Yacinthe Band, and Scythian.

Josh Turner, MerleFest 2022. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, MerleFest 2022. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

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

Labeled by Rolling Stones as “the gold standard for bluegrass, Americana, and string music festivals,” MerleFest brings together people from all over the country for what many say is the “very best in traditional plus” music.

But how do you explain MerleFest to someone who has never attended?

That’s what EdNC has set out to do.

By this time next year, EdNC will have released an hour-long documentary film highlighting the annual music festival at Wilkes Community College. From its history to the musical artists to the fans to the impact on the college and community, the MerleFest documentary will give an up-close and authentic account of the festival that is as storied as its inception.

MerleFest 2023 is set for April 27-30. Follow this page for updates and announcements.

What you may not know about MerleFest but should

While recognized by many as a renowned “traditional plus” music festival honoring music legend Doc Watson and his son Eddy Merle Watson, MerleFest is also the primary fundraiser for the Wilkes Community College Foundation.

When the event started in 1988 it was intended 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 funding was a problem.

“B” Townes shares the history of MerleFest. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

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 baby. 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.”

Townes said Watson generously agreed to do the concert, but there was a snag in scheduling the fall event. Watson’s wife and daughter suggested the college wait until spring and hold a two-day music festival.

By spring of 1988 the first event was sold out with many of Doc’s friends playing the two-day festival. 

Emily Thomas/EducationNC

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

Now, 34 years later, MerleFest is an “internationally renowned music festival and fundraiser.” 

Even with its growth and notoriety, MerleFest hasn’t lost its core mission of honoring Doc Watson and his son, providing “traditional plus” music, and raising funds for the college.  

The gardens Townes originally set out to fund have since been endowed. Now, the proceeds from the festival go to support scholarships, capital projects, and training for Wilkes Community College’s three campuses. 

“We have been able to do so much more because of the festival. And I think that’s the takeaway – is how we’re giving back to help the students,” said Wilkes Community College’s Allison Phillips, vice president of institutional advancement and executive director of the WCC Foundation. 

Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Through the years, funds from MerleFest have been used to build new classrooms and centers that are then used to train students for the ever-evolving workforce. Festival funds also support the financial needs of students. The newly added SAGE Fellows scholarship program is funded through the MerleFest Mega Raffle and provides students with academic and financial support. Students in the program receive a $4,000 scholarship over two years, a laptop, SAGE services, and leadership opportunities.

In a press release from the college, SAGE fellow Makenzie Shumate said her success can be directly linked to the fellows program. When Shumate learned she was pregnant, she was unsure how she could raise a child, work, and go to school. But the SAGE program provided both the financial and academic support she needed to continue her education.

“The emotional support, encouragement, tutoring, as well as the financial assistance I received throughout the program are the reasons I will graduate with my associate degree in Business in May 2022,” Shumate said in the press release. 

In his retelling of the festival’s history, Townes, who has since retired as a college instructor and executive director of MerleFest, said “The word community has always been bigger than the word college.”

Each year, MerleFest has an annual economic impact of over $10 million in the region. According to festival director Wes Whitson, “Over 70 community and college organizations participate and benefit financially from their participation.”

The music, moments, and memories of MerleFest

If you ask festival-goers why they attend MerleFest, you’ll get a lot of varied answers. But two words ring true for almost everyone – music and community. 

MerleFest 2022. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC

You don’t have to know who Doc Watson is to appreciate MerleFest. But if you listen closely to the artists that play the stages, you’ll see how Watson’s music has influenced musicians over the years. 

The words “traditional plus” used to describe the music of MerleFest are just words Doc and Merle threw out when talking about their own music. Their style was traditional Appalachian region music plus whatever else the two wanted to play.

And it’s exactly what you’ll see at MerleFest, a mix of music that includes everything from bluegrass to Americana to country to blues to rock. 

Robert Kinlaw filming Madison Bridges. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Madison Bridges, long-time festival attendee said, “MerleFest is special because even though its foundations are in traditional music, it’s never been afraid to evolve or add new acts to its lineup. Where else can you take a shape note singing class and watch a Jason Isbell set in the same day?”   

But it’s also special because of the people who attend. MerleFest brings together people of all ages, including children, from all over the country. The festival crosses musical genre lines to create a shared experience for over 70,000 people each year. MerleFest is a community. 

The Chet Atkins Dressing Room, reserved for Doc Watson. Emily Thomas/EducationNC

Doc Watson always said he was just one of the people. But there is no doubt that Watson, because of his national recognition, has impacted the lives of many when he generously agreed to play a festival at a North Carolina community college 34 years ago. Watson passed away in 2012 at the age of 89.

“Doc’s looking down on us and would be pleased.”

“B” Townes in the MerleFest 2022 wrap-up video

The artists and fans of MerleFest 2022

Jeff Hanna of Nitty Gritty Dirt Band (left) with Sam Bush. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Emmylou Harris. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
Trampled by Turtles. Emily Thomas/EducationNC
MerleFest 2022. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC
MerleFest attendees. Hannah McClellan/EducationNC
Emily Thomas

Emily Thomas is the Director of Postsecondary Attainment for EducationNC.