Now in it’s 28th year, the music festival with humble beginnings that otherworldly American musician Arthel “Doc” Watson created in 1988 to honor his son Eddy Merle Watson, tucked into the Blue Ridge Mountains of Wilkesboro, North Carolina, is known around the globe these days for world-class music, memories, community and discovery.
There’s a magical experience in seeing or discovering a band for the first time, or even seeing a favorite artist or group again and again – and sharing the experience with tens of thousands of your newest friends – a euphoric feeling that’s almost too good to be true. Yet that feeling is reality, and fortunately it’s happening again this week in those familiar Carolina foothills.
Within the leafy campus of Wilkes Community College, this year’s MerleFest brings forth headliners Dwight Yoakam, The Avett Brothers, Trampled by Turtles, Marshall Tucker Band, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Lee Ann Womack, Del McCoury, Robert Earl Keen and Jerry Douglas and his Earls of Leicester, with scores of familiar faces such as festival vets Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan, Chatham County Line, The Black Lillies, Steep Canyon Rangers, David Holt, Bryan Sutton, T. Michael Coleman, The Honeycutters, Scythian, and many more artists from the ‘traditional-plus’ genres of music – designated by Watson as the traditional Appalachian music and the other genres close to his heart – more often than not, roots, folk, country and Americana.
One of the many hallmarks of the festival is the open and inviting atmosphere.
Throughout the weekend, it’s not unusual to see artists walking the festival grounds, talking with fans and catching up with fellow musicians, family, and friends. Unlike numerous festivals, festivalgoers at MerleFest are studied music fans, many who are musicians themselves.
There is a shared experience amongst those in attendance of discussing performances from the 80 artists performing across 13 stages over the weekend, as well as the announced – and rumored – collaborations and songs, even the instruments being played during the multitudes of sets throughout the festival’s four days. There is plenty of reminiscing, as one may imagine.
Another MerleFest calling card is that the quality of the music is second-to-none.
Ted Hagaman feels one of his most important objectives as festival director is to maintain the standards of both the music and the festival atmosphere. “If somebody is going to pay for a ticket to come to MerleFest, then we want them to feel like they’ve gotten their money’s worth,” he says, “and to ensure that it’s a safe and family-friendly environment. That’s what makes us different from a lot of festivals.”
The ‘traditional-plus’ lineup of music genres renowned at MerleFest is as much a trademark of the festival as Doc Watson himself. After talking with Doc about planning for the future of the festival, Hagaman says the traditional-plus theme remains stronger than ever, even almost three years after Watson’s untimely passing in May of 2012.
“We have a formula that we developed about 25 years ago, when the festival really started becoming an annual festival,” says Hagaman. “It’s kind of like Kentucky Fried [Chicken’s] secret recipe,” Hagaman continues, laughing, “of the number of different types of acts that we bring into MerleFest – that includes everything from bluegrass to Americana to Celtic to country to rock, and it goes on and on and on. We’ve stuck with that recipe, and we continue to stick with that recipe.
“I’d always thought about when Doc was no longer with us, the challenges that might come with that. But Doc and I talked three or four years ago about ‘where does this go for the future?’, and I think he was pretty well at peace with keeping it the traditional-plus type programming that we’ve stuck to. It’s worked, and the good thing about that is, even though Doc is no longer with us, we still have a lot of artists that want to play this festival – it’s kind of on a bucket list, because of their relationships in the past with Doc, and also because of the reputation that the festival has.”
Renowned bassist T. Michael Coleman, a longtime collaborator with both Doc and Merle, agrees about the strong familial and community aspect that is the backbone of the festival.
“The credit has to be given to “B” Townes, who was the first person to start the festival with the idea to Doc,” says Coleman. “The Watson Family impressed upon [Townes], that’s what [the family-oriented, music-packed atmosphere] they want. They wanted this to be a place where you could bring your family, feel safe, and the musicians have some tie to the family and to the music. They have captured that feeling, no matter how many fans come to the festival, that you still feel this camaraderie among the musicians and that spills over to the audience as well.”
There are few, if any, better resources on the festival than Coleman, who has only missed one MerleFest to date – in 1988.
Of all the 80 acts performing throughout the weekend, who is Hagaman most looking forward to seeing?
“All of the above,” Hagaman says with a jovial laugh, for a moment toeing the company line, before admitting to a few acts he’s planning on catching. “Naturally, we’re always thrilled to have The Avett Brothers here – that goes without speaking. Dwight Yoakam, we’ve had him on our list for two or three years, and it worked out this year. We’re tickled about that.
“Our audience also loves to bring back a retro rock group, and Marshall Tucker Band – I’ll be surprised if there aren’t parts in their set where the crowd will be singing so loudly you think it’s coming from the stage, because everybody knows the words to the songs.”
Along with Coleman, for several of the artists performing again at this year’s MerleFest, multi-instrumentalist/vocalist Tara Nevins of Donna The Buffalo, multi-instrumentalist Danylo Fedoryka of Scythian, and vocalist/guitarist Amanda Anne Platt of The Honeycutters, the festival marks a special place in their band’s touring schedules, as well as their band’s careers.
“We love MerleFest,” Nevins, co-founding member of the NY-based Americana roots rock veterans Donna The Buffalo, says, “and have been playing there for years. It’s an integral part of our year. We look forward to it. For me, it’s a wonderful festival to play and we look forward to seeing all the wonderful people we’ve met sharing the weekend and sharing our music. It’s always a great time. We run into wonderful friends and wonderful people – we’re always treated really well there.
“They’re a great audience at MerleFest – it’s a real music lovers’ kind of place,” Nevins adds. “People really appreciate music there. We travel across the country – we tour everywhere – and no matter where we are, people will say, ‘We saw you at MerleFest!’ It’s a very well-respected, popular, successful festival with wonderful music and great people. We feel like we’re part of the MerleFest family and we look forward to it every year.”
Based in Washington, D.C., Danylo Fedoroyka and his Scythian bandmates are releasing their new folk album Old Tin Can over MerleFest weekend, which includes a nod to Watson on the record. “MerleFest featured prominently in making us the band that we are today,” Fedoryka says, “and on the album we have a tribute to Doc Watson. We came up with a version of ‘Columbus Stockade Blues’, which we first heard him singing.”
“I can’t overstate how much MerleFest has impacted us as a band. It’s really broadened our horizons so much.”
“We’re so lucky,” Fedoryka continues, “because we get to be there all four days this year. It’s kind of selfish, but I love being there for four days, because I want to see the bands. There’s just an incredible array of musicians there. But the thing I think I look forward to the most, is the people. It’s amazing, because I think I spend my entire time at MerleFest, talking with friends we’ve made over the last seven years. It’s really become a family.”
Fedoryka enjoys walking the festival grounds and interacting with fans he’s met over the years. “The way people carry themselves at MerleFest is different from a lot of festivals,” he says. “A headliner could go walking through the crowd, and engage the fans in a friendly manner. It’s easy to get into conversations with people – that’s what’s unique and special about MerleFest.”
Playing in North Carolina, often viewed as the heartland of traditional music, remains special for Fedoryka. “I remember after the first time we played at MerleFest, I said, ‘I want to play North Carolina as much as possible,’ and I think it’s actually shaping up that way. I believe we’re playing six or seven times in North Carolina this year.”
As for Amanda Anne Platt, her time at MerleFest this year is much like her band The Honeycutters’ musical themes – optimism and hope mixed with equal parts heartbreak. The vocalist/guitarist of the Asheville, NC-based country roots act is admittedly sad at missing out on seeing a certain country icon who happens to be headlining on Sunday this year.
“Sadly, what I would most be looking forward to seeing,” she admits, laughing, “is Dwight Yoakam, but I’m gonna have to leave before he plays. I know there’s gonna be a lot of amazing music, and I’m being single-minded here, but I’m having a really hard time getting past the face that I’m not gonna be able to see him.”
As a successful band leader and singer-songwriter, Platt’s first experience with the festival came by way of songwriting contests she entered early in her musical career. Along with her talent in writing authentic and emotions-on-her-sleeves country roots tunes, her persistence led her to MerleFest, landing her a spot in the festival’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, named in honor of the country/bluegrass songwriter.
“I’d never heard of [MerleFest] before I moved to Asheville,” Platt admits. “The way I started being interested in it was I was submitting to a lot of different songwriting contests, and the Chris Austin [Songwriting Contest] was one that came up on my radar. I submitted to it two or three years before I was a finalist. It really became this epic destination in my mind,” she continues, adding a laugh, “‘I’m gonna get into the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest – I’m gonna get it!’ So when we finally got to go, it was a really cool experience.
“Just the whole history with Doc Watson and Merle,” she continues. “I think it’s cool how big it’s gotten, from humble beginnings. I feel it’s one of the biggest festivals that honors that kind of music. It’s just a cool thing to see, how many people come out to support it and how many people get excited about it. It’s something about seeing a band there that makes it more important. The crowd that goes to MerleFest is a committed music listening audience.”
Tributes and collaborations are also an integral occurrence of MerleFest. This year, Coleman will be sharing the stage with numerous artists in remembering Doc and Merle.
“Probably the most important thing I’m doing all weekend is the “The Memories of Doc and Merle” set on Creekside Stage at noon on Saturday,” Coleman says. “The impetus of that show is that Doc and Merle were the magnet that drew all the musicians that are going to play that day together as friends, and we’ve remained friends all through the years, because of Doc and Merle. What we’re gonna do is play music that was indicative of Doc and Merle’s styles and relate a few stories along the way.”
For Coleman, he cherishes the role of musician and storyteller. “It’s very rewarding to be given that responsibility of relating the memory of Doc and Merle, but the thing that I wanted to do, is to make sure that the audience does not forget why this festival is. It’s because of Doc and Merle and the music and the joy that they brought. To be given that responsibility, is an awesome responsibility and a very humbling experience.
Throughout the 1970s and 1980s, Coleman played bass alongside Doc and Merle, before venturing into famous progressive bluegrass/folk outfits the Seldom Scene and Chesapeake. Playing in such storied company as the Watson father and son was special, even for such a talented musician as Coleman.
“With Doc and Merle, we never rehearsed,” Coleman says. “We’d just play. I’ll tell the story about back when Merle asked me if I wanted to play with he and his dad. He said, ‘Well, come down to the house, we’ll play some songs, and we’ll see how it works.’ So I went down to Doc’s house. We played “T For Texas”, then Doc turned to Merle and said, ‘He’ll do,’ and we didn’t practice again for 15 years.”
There’s a lasting memory about Doc and Merle that Coleman keeps with him everywhere he goes. “Doc and Merle would always do the right thing,” Coleman admits. “Money made no difference, time meant no difference – they would always do the right thing. That’s something I try to carry forward.
“For example, if we would go somewhere to a club that was a fill-in date between concerts,” Coleman continues, “and it was not the best place in the world, and the people were being disrespectful, they would leave. They would say, even if they needed the money, ‘I do not have to put up with this’, and it would be some place where it would be drunken brawls and things like that. But one thing that they always did: they made sure that I got paid, whether they did or not.”
Coleman says he cherishes catching up with friends over the happenings in one another’s lives – providing just as lively a backdrop as the music. Another year of MerleFest is upon us, and Doc Watson’s envisioned circle of music and memories remains unbroken.
“The thing I look most forward to,” Coleman concludes, “which is what I think most of the musicians look forward to, is the reunion aspect. A lot of these people I don’t get to see but once a year, and we’re backstage talking and socializing, and it’s almost like, the fact that we have to go play is secondary to the reunion. We’ll be talking, and all of a sudden, someone will say, ‘Wait a second, aren’t you supposed to be on the stage over here?’ and we have to go run off, because we’re catching up on a year’s worth of life.”
MerleFest 2015 runs from April 23-26 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. Visit www.merlefest.org for more details.