A Brief History of MerleFest
During the course of four days, nearly 80,000 music fans will
visit the campus of Wilkes Community College.
Call it an enrollment in “traditional plus.”
A term coined by the late Doc Watson, “traditional plus” refers to the music of MerleFest — bluegrass, old-time and whatever Watson and friends felt like playing.
This year’s festival promises more of the same, which, as fans can attest, is always different. Taking place April 24 to 27 on the WCC campus, MerleFest features more than 130 artists performing on 13 different stages. But it wasn’t always that way.
“B” Townes, MerleFest’s first executive director, clearly remembers the inaugural festival, established in 1987 as a memorial for Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in October 1985. Townes didn’t come to WCC to direct a music festival, however.
“I began at Wilkes Community College in 1973, teaching horticulture,” he said.
Throughout the next decade, he strived to increase the campus’s horticultural diversity for educational purposes and public display. In the 1980s, he developed a master plan that featured a variety of themed gardens, one of which was to be a Garden for the Senses.
“We basically had different themed gardens on campus and had asked various people to sponsor those and make a donation,” Townes said. “One of our board members said, ‘Well, you know, maybe we ought to talk to Doc Watson about that.’”
Their rationale was that Watson, who was blind since childhood, might appreciate a garden designed for the visually impaired, one that featured plants of a highly tactile and fragrant nature. Further, all the plant and sculptural descriptions would be labeled in Braille.
To raise money for the project, Townes and company decided to host a one-off concert in the fall of 1987, featuring headliner Doc Watson performing in the campus’s Walker Center.
“As we moved along with the concept, it became apparent that we wouldn’t be able to put the concert together quick enough at the Walker Center,” Townes said. “So, (Watson’s wife) Rosa Lee suggested we hold it off from that fall to spring (1988) and let Doc invite some of his and Merle’s friends for a festival.”
The two-day festival, dubbed the Merle Watson Memorial Festival, featured performances not only by Watson, but from such luminaries as Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, Grandpa Jones, Marty Stuart, New Grass Revival, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, The Smith Sisters, John Hartford, Jerry Douglas and George Hamilton IV, among many others.
“Almost everyone who played knew Doc and Merle personally,” said Sam Bush, who performed there with New Grass Revival and hasn’t missed a year since. “It was pretty emotional, and it had to be tough on Doc and Rosa Lee. We were all feeling the loss of Merle a lot during that first one.”
They also felt an indelible sense of collaboration, in that the memorial festival brought together a catalogue of names that otherwise may not have performed together. It was no surprise that a video recording of the festival went viral — and without the help of the then-nonexistent Internet.
“The video went out over the world, and that caused the phones to ring and people to write,” Townes said. “Up until the fall, when we previewed that video, we weren’t thinking of having another (festival).”
After discussing the matter with Watson —and receiving his blessing — Townes and company brought the festival back for a second year. The rest is history.
The festival was renamed MerleFest in 1994, and the musical celebration continued to grow, along with the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses, which, along with its themed counterparts, can be enjoyed by the thousands of fans that enjoy MerleFest today.
“When it’s all said and done, a lot of people remember Merle, and a whole lot of people love Doc and the music of Doc and Merle,” Townes said. “And today, we carry on that tradition and try to focus on traditional-plus music.”
Bush is honored to have taken part throughout the decades.
“One thing that I love about MerleFest is that it’s kind of a reflection in that Doc didn’t feel like he played one kind of music necessarily and was well-versed in many,” he said. “That’s kind of the story of the festival. Although bluegrass is obviously featured in it, it’s not just a bluegrass festival, not just a country festival. There have been so many styles displayed at MerleFest, and they still continue to be.”
Townes retired in March 2010 as WCC’s vice president of development and now attends MerleFest as a ticket-buyer and volunteer. As the latter, he offers tours and oral history to the festival’s friends and sponsors. As the former, he can finally enjoy the music.
“In those early years, it didn’t take on a life of its own until it was over each weekend,” Townes said. “By Sunday afternoon, it would kind of be out of my hands, and I could sit back with my wife and family and enjoy the next set of music. Then it got to be mid-day Saturday when I felt like that. When I retired, and I look back on it now, it’s come full circle. It has a life of its own, has its own legs.”
That circle continues April 24 to 27. For tickets and more information, visit http://www.merlefest.org.