This spring marks my 25th straight trip to the Merle Watson Memorial Music Festival, better known as MerleFest.
I missed the first two festivals, held in the late 1980s, when the festival was a one, then two-day affair, with bands performing on the back of a flatbed truck. But I’ve been to every one since.
Over the past two-and-a-half decades, MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, has grown into a four-day festival of music, food, arts and crafts, with more than a dozen live music stages.
It also features “jamming” areas, where folks can bring their instruments and play with other musicians in bluegrass, old-time and other genres.
MerleFest is one of the premier acoustic (but not exclusively acoustic) music festivals in the world, and if you live in Watauga County, it is basically held in your backyard (Wilkesboro is 30 miles from Boone).
For those reasons, I’m always gobsmacked when I hear someone say that they have never been to MerleFest, or they haven’t been in years. When I ask that person why that is, they usually respond by repeating a number of misconceptions about the festival that are either exaggerations or patently false.
For that reason, let me now present my list of MerleFest misconceptions and see if I might be able to clear them up:
MerleFest is four straight days of bluegrass.
At MerleFest, you are hands down guaranteed to hear some of the best bluegrass in the world. This year’s festival features multiple Grammy and IBMA (International Bluegrass Musicians Association) award winners Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys, Steep Canyon Rangers, Dailey and Vincent and Buncombe Turnpike.
But MerleFest 2014 also features country music superstars Merle Haggard and Alan Jackson, jam-band circuit stalwarts Keller Williams, Larry Keel and Natural Bridge and Donna the Buffalo, and great singer songwriters Darrell Scott, Shannon Whitworth and Todd Snider.
Plus there are bands like Scythian and The Waybacks who defy categorization and artists like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas who can deftly play any style of music with anyone.
It’s always the same bands that perform.
Granted, there are some musicians, such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and others, who are there pretty much every year. But every party needs a seasoned host or two to help things run smoothly.
Every year, a handful of great acts make their MerleFest debuts, and you never know if they are going to be “one and done” or if they will become regulars. This year, Mandolin Orange, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Todd Snider, acoustic duo Grits and Soul and traditional blues artist Eleanor Ellis will all be making their MerleFest debuts.
Other artists, such as The Duhks, the Kruger Brothers, Larry Keel and the Nashville Bluegrass Band, are returning to MerleFest after an absence of a few years.
It always rains at MerleFest.
This is a tricky misconception. Yes, anytime you try to do anything outdoors four days in a row during the last week in April, you are daring Mother Nature to douse you. Yes, last year’s festival featured an epic downpour on Sunday. But the first three days of last year’s festival were near perfect. The same was true of MerleFest 2012: one day of rain out of four. And we’ve had many festivals where it didn’t rain a drop.
The more serious weather concern this time of year is the wide range of temperatures you are likely to encounter at a full day at the festival. In Wilkesboro at this time of year, it is not unusual for daytime highs to reach into the mid-80s. But once that sun goes down, watch out. The temperatures can plummet nearly 40 degrees in a matter of hours.
So bring a poncho or raincoat in case of rain, some shorts and a T-shirt for the heat of the day, and some long pants, layers and maybe even a winter hat for the last shows of the evening. And don’t forget your sunscreen.
MerleFest has gotten too expensive.
Wow. It’s hard to argue that one. Ticket prices have risen steadily over the years, and this year, a four-day general admission ticket goes for $160, while a three-day pass (Fri.-Sat.-Sun.) costs $145. Single day tickets are $55 for Friday, $60 for Saturday and $45 for Sunday. I’m not going to lie to you, that’s a lot of money.
But you have to look at the larger picture. That single day ticket is going to give you an entire day’s worth of music. On Saturday, the music starts around 10 a.m. and doesn’t stop until midnight (later if you attend the Midnight Jam). During the day, you have more than a dozen stages to choose from, and you are paying less than $5 an hour for the privilege.
Plus, MerleFest still admits children 12 and younger for free, so families aren’t gouged the way they are at some outdoor amusement parks.
Think about it this way, if you were going to some other venue to see Merle Haggard, and only Merle Haggard, you’d probably pay $30 to $40 for the ticket. At MerleFest on Sunday, you will pay $45 to see Merle Haggard, plus you get to see the Claire Lynch Band, Tut Taylor, Donna the Buffalo, Happy Traum, the Jeff Little Trio, Jim Avett, Jim Lauderdale, Laura Boosinger, Rory Block, Mandolin Orange, Scythian, Tim O’Brien, the Kruger Brothers, Mitch Greenhill, Pete and Joan Wornick, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Riley Baugus and more. Whew.
MerleFest also has a great volunteer system in place, where you can sign up to work for four hours or so and enjoy the rest of the day at the festival for free.
MerleFest is way too crowded.
This misconception is a holdover from about 15 years ago when organizers made the mistake of booking too many mainstream artists, such as Dolly Parton, on Friday and Saturday evening. They have since made a habit of scheduling those acts on Thursday and Sunday. This year, Alan Jackson will perform on Thursday, and Merle Haggard will perform on Sunday.
Organizers have also opened up the Main Stage seating area to where it is about twice as big as it used to be. They have also streamlined the shuttle system and added a lot more buses, so the exit lines move very quickly at the end of the evening.
Over the past 10 years or so, attendance at MerleFest has remained steady, so there is always room for a few more music lovers. So, come on down, we’d love to have you plop down your lawn chair next to ours.