It's MerleFest Time
More than 90 artists on 14 stages.
"There's going to be something out there that you'll enjoy," festival director Ted Hagaman said.
Obviously, it's not just any festival Hagaman's directing. It's MerleFest, the annual celebration of "tradition plus" music, legendary picker Doc Watson's term for good-time music - bluegrass, country, old-time, anything that's good for the ears and soul.
Held on the Wilkes Community College campus in Wilkesboro April 28 to May 1, the festival honors Watson's late son, Merle, by way of music, fellowship and family.
Per welcome tradition, Doc Watson headlines this year's festival, with a little help from friends like The Doobie Brothers, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, Zac Brown Band, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, The Waybacks and Joan Osborne.
And that's to name a few.
"We offer a very diverse lineup of entertainers, basically something for everyone," Hagaman said.
The search begins before the present festival's even started.
"It's a year-round process," Hagaman said. "We've been working on 2012 here for the last three months. We continually add to our list of those we feel would be appropriate to bring to the festival."
That includes big-name acts, up-and-coming performers, regional musicians and more.
"Last year, Zac Brown played for his first time at the festival," Hagaman said. "When we talked to him, we'd found out he'd been coming to the festival since he was a teenager. He'd come with his guitar on his back and walk around like everyone else ... He always had a dream that he'd be able to come back and play on the Watson Stage, and that happened last year. You never know who you're going to see at MerleFest."
Randy Travis, on the other hand, is a different story.
"We've been trying to get Randy Travis here for over 10 years, and it just happened to work this year," Hagaman said. "That was a special request from Doc Watson."
Since being named festival director five years ago, Hagaman has worked closely with Watson, whose devotion to family has brought the festival a unique integrity, and not only in the sense that it's alcohol-free.
It's a sense of family and helpfulness from MerleFest's 4,400 year-round volunteers. Approximately 700 volunteers man the festival, "which is amazing," Hagaman said. "We could not do this without them."
Volunteers work every aspect of the festival, from box office to food service to security and everything in between, including backstage assistance.
"We have a very diverse group of people from all over the world," Hagaman said. "Some come every year from overseas - all ages, races, it's a very diverse group."
It makes for an impeccably organized good time that generates audience numbers in the 80,000 range. A study conducted by Appalachian State University's business school indicated that MerleFest brought northwestern North Carolina an economic boost to the tune of $10 million, with $5 million directly to Wilkes County.
That also helps more than 70 participating High Country clubs, groups and nonprofit organizations that participate in some way, shape or form, such as the Boy Scouts of America's shuttle bus service. Hagaman said such organizations earned more than $430,000 collectively at last year's festival.
"It's a great event," he said. "The music's great, but it's just such a fun experience. People here are always in a good mood, here to have a good time, and it's a well-behaved group of people, a great family environment. I don't know if there's anything else like it."
And MerleFest isn't just limited to performance. It also features four days of audience participation, including workshops in the Mayes Pit (in Cohn Auditorium), the Songwriter Coffeehouse, a slew of Jammin' Tents, children's activities in the Little Pickers' area and shopping aplenty.
As for Hagaman's personal highlights, "I love Thursday at 2:30 p.m., when they open the gates," he said.
And then The Waybacks' Hillside Album Hour on Saturday, along with the high-energy Dance Tent, which is never short on dancers no matter what time of day.
He also offered first time MerleFesters a couple tips: Bring comfortable shoes, sunscreen and a couple layers of clothes to stay atop of the weather.
And one more thing.
"Come with a smile on your face," he added.
New to MerleFest
Due to safety concerns, the Chris Austin Stage has been moved into Alumni Hall, otherwise known as The Lounge, meaning that all the contests, including the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, will be held indoors.
As of August 2010, Wilkes Community College is 100 percent tobacco-free, meaning no smoking at MerleFest.
Parking and shuttle service is complimentary. Simply follow the signs for festival parking at the Blue Lot, located off N.C. 268, accessible via U.S. 421.
Tickets can be purchased online (including print-at-home e-tickets) at http://www.merlefest.org, by calling (800) 343-7857, or at the gate. Gates open on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m.
For more information, visit http://www.merlefest.org.