MerleFest: A Family Affair
MerleFest, this year and every year, is a holiday in the Crowell family.
“Take how most people young and old feel about Christmas,” said 28-year-old Hannah Jean Crowell of Boone. “The planning, traditions, anticipation, speculation … the annual countdown. Well, that’s what’s MerleFest is to me. It’s my Christmas.”
As a 3-year-old tot, her father brought her along to see the great Emmylou Harris perform at the very first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival in 1988.
“He’ll never forget, because my mom was pregnant with my little brother and was three weeks from her due date — not happy at all that my dad was running off to a music festival,” Crowell said.
In 2012, the festival that became MerleFest celebrates its 25th year, taking place Thursday to Sunday, April 26 to 29, on the foothills campus of Wilkes Community College.
It’s been a long haul since that first festival, originally slated to be a one-off benefit event, when artists put on a legendary show from atop two flat-bed trucks and fans sat on hay bales and folding chairs. Today the festival features 14 stages, more than 90 artists and four-day attendance of about 80,000.
The festival is named for the late Merle Watson, a skilled guitarist who toured the country with his father Doc Watson, the international folk music legend from Deep Gap. Merle died in a tractor accident in 1985.
“B” Townes, a horticulture instructor at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, along with Bill Young, a Watson family friend, helped organize the first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival to raise money for the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses, a garden for the blind on the college campus.
The inaugural festival took place April 30 and May 1, 1988, featuring performances by Doc Watson, as well as many of Merle’s musician friends, including Sam Bush, John Cowan, Béla Fleck and Pat Flynn of New Grass Revival; Chet Atkins; Earl Scruggs; Grandpa Jones; Marty Stuart; John Hartford; Emmylou Harris; and Jerry Douglas.
After 1989, the festival expanded, at the request of Doc, to include more folk and blues musicians and more opportunities for unique artist jams and stage collaborations, which has become a signature characteristic of the festival.
In the 1990s, the festival began an outreach program in which festival artists perform at area elementary schools and school children are bussed in to the festival on Friday.
The prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest began in 1993. Named for Chris Austin, a Boone native and member of Reba McEntire’s band who died in a 1991 plane crash, the contests’ winners during the years are among the cream of the crop in Americana music, including Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt, Michael Reno Harrell, Martha Scanlan and David Via.
By 1997, the festival had 11 stages and overall attendance of 45,122; that year’s lineup included country music superstars the Dixie Chicks, Arlo Guthrie, Alison Krauss, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones and Ricky Skaggs. The 2000 festival was headlined by Willie Nelson, followed by Dolly Parton in 2001.
Crowell remembers almost all of it. She’s been at every single festival over the years, describing it as one of the constants in her life.
Her dad would drive down to Wilkesboro at 4:30 a.m. to stand in line, and, once the gates opened, he ran to the Watson Stage field to reserve the best seats. Then he’d drive back up to Boone to pick up the family and bring them down.
When reserved seats first went on sale in 1998, the Crowells were among 3,000 people who grabbed them up in advance.
Crowell’s first celebrity crush? A shaggy, mullet-headed banjo master — Béla Fleck, who she happened to meet while standing in line for burritos one year.
“I was so in love with him,” she said. “I was so excited and I wanted to meet him so bad.”
In high school, she volunteered at MerleFest’s “Little Pickers” children’s area with Watauga High School’s Mountain Alliance program. Her senior prom was MerleFest weekend, but “there was no way I was going to miss MerleFest. I spent my prom listening to Alison Krauss,” she said.
In college, she came up with every excuse she could to get to the festival: a doctor’s appointment, a family tragedy.
“I told every story to get there,” she said. “Nobody ever caught on.”
And when she moved to Washington, D.C., for four years, she came back to the High Country twice a year — for Christmas and for MerleFest.
“It really is a family reunion,” said Crowell, who attends with her parents and family friends every year.
And as Crowell grew from a 3-year-old toddler to a young woman, so, too, did the festival. She remembers the turning point, when the festival really got big.
After the 2000 movie hit, “O Brother Where Art Thou?,” Crowell remembers, “bluegrass was in. Dolly Parton was coming. They really capitalized on it. That was the one year I felt that everything had changed and they had forgotten what the festival was.”
But since then, and especially during the past three years, Crowell said, “they’ve really gotten a handle on what the core of the festival is — keeping a diverse range of Americana music, while still being a huge event.”
Festival director Ted Hagaman said there’s a key reason MerleFest has evolved from an impromptu, slapdash benefit show to one of the smoothest-running music festivals in the country.
“The people,” Hagaman said. “We’ve got people associated with the festival that have been associated since day one. So many take ownership and pride of this festival, and that’s what makes it what it is.”
Last year, the economic impact from the festival to northwestern North Carolina was estimated at $10.4 million, including $5.5 million in Wilkes County alone. Community and civic groups, which sell food and services at the festival, raised $425,000 in 2011.
“It would take a lot of bake sales and car washes to make that kind of money,” Hagaman said.
This year’s festival features Doc Watson, Vince Gill, Tedeschi Trucks Band, Los Lobos, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Sam Bush, Dailey and Vincent, Béla Fleck and the Flecktones, the Kruger Brothers, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, Jim Lauderdale, Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce, Scythian, Steep Canyon Rangers, Marty Stuart and many others.
Ticket prices vary. For more information, visit http://www.merlefest.org or call (800) 343-7857.