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MerleFest set to celebrate its 35th anniversary in Wilkesboro

 Old Crow Medicine Show performs at MerleFest 2022.
Jim Gavenus
submitted image
Old Crow Medicine Show performs at MerleFest 2022.

MerleFest is considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, and serves as an annual homecoming for musicians and music fans. Held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson.

MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, featuring the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and has expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles.

The festival hosts numerous artists, performing on 12 stages during the course of the four-day event, beginning on April 27. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.

The Avett Brothers, Maren Morris, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Nickel Creek are among the musicians paying tribute to the man who influenced guitar players from Bob Dylan and Ry Cooder to Billy Strings and Molly Tuttle.

Lindsay Craven is the festival's Artistic Director and she joined WUNC recently to discuss this year's festival.

This is an excerpt of an edited transcript of that conversation. You can hear the full interview by clicking the LISTEN button at the top of this post.

You started as an intern at MerleFest in 2008 after graduating from Appalachian State University in Boone. What drew you to this event?

"It just happened to pop up on an internship board my junior year. And honestly, I wasn't familiar with the festival at that time, but I'm a music lover... And I was like, 'Well, there's music and there's advertising, let's see what this is about.'

"And I went and worked that first year and wound up in the artists relations area — which works with artists during the festival... I just fell in love with it. And just ever since, I've just been in love with the festival and the environment and the people that work it, and working with the artists because they're so joyful when they're there. So, it's just a great experience."

That list of performers is pretty amazing, but are there some events you are especially looking forward to?

"There's several acts that I got to catch bits and pieces of at Americana Fest this year that I'm excited to see — hopefully a little more of a set — if I can squeeze it into my busy schedule during the festival. Ali McGuirk had a great set of Americana Fest — I'm excited to see more of what she does. I haven't gotten to see Miko Marks live yet; I'm looking forward to trying to catch at least one of her sets. She's very busy across the weekend. And then, I've never seen Brothers of a Feather, or the Black Crowes. So, I'm very excited to see that — tons of songs from my childhood there that I'm looking forward to hearing live."

You've been attending or helping out for more than a decade, Lindsay. Can you name a favorite moment or two from MerleFest history?

"I loved getting down to the Creekside stage every year and seeing Doc do the Gospel Hour during the years where he was with us. That one's always a special one for me. And, I actually got to see the Avett Brothers for the first time live at MerleFest. And some of the lawn audience members kind of stormed the stage during one of their nighttime performances and kind of crowd-surfed the chairs back through the audience so they'd have a dance area up-front. It gave the staff members a small heart attack because there was a lot of work that had to be done to go put it back. But it was a pretty cool memory and pretty interesting thing to see happen in the moment."

What do you think it is about MerleFest that keeps musicians and fans coming back year after year?

"I really think it has a lot to do with just the atmosphere. The fact that we're a family-friendly festival and a dry festival makes us pretty unique in the festival scene. A lot of our artists tell us it's like coming to summer camp for them. They get to see a lot of their friends, they get to jump around and, you know, guest-in on sets, just in the moment. And I think they also realize that their audiences — they're usually of a pretty clear mind, and they're there to hear the music. And so, they're really appreciating what they're up there doing. And I think that makes them feel like they should play at a higher caliber than maybe they have to at some places. The people are out there really appreciating what they're doing."

Do volunteer still play a crucial role in the event?

"Absolutely. We cannot do this festival without our volunteers. I think we're upwards of about 4,500 across the year. You know, some of them work throughout the year. Some of them prepare the grounds before the festival, then we have tons that work during the festival. It's a great way for them to be able to attend the festival at no cost, support the work that the festival is doing and fundraising for Wilkes Community College, but also just to be a part of something special like MerleFest. We also have our MerleFest app that's live now in whatever your preferred app store. You can download that for free and start working on your schedule. Look at the artists, bios and pictures, and get your festival weekend planned out ahead of time."

Lindsay Craven is the Artistic Director for MerleFest. The event is being held on the Wilkes Community College campus in Wilkesboro April 27-30 and will celebrate its 35th anniversary and the 100th birthday of Doc Watson.

Eric Hodge hosts WUNC’s broadcast of Morning Edition, and files reports for the North Carolina news segments of the broadcast. He started at the station in 2004 doing fill-in work on weekends and All Things Considered.
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