It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like MerleFest

Article Published: Nov. 10, 2011 | Modified: Nov. 17, 2011
It’s Beginning to Look a Lot Like MerleFest

MerleFest has brought in some great headliners in the past. Last year The Doobie Brothers were brought in, with bassist and songwriter John Cowan shown here, and electrified the crowd.

Photo by Rob Moore

The leaves are falling, the temperature’s dropping, but MerleFest 25 is heating up.

Tickets are now on sale for the ever-popular four-day music festival, which returns to Wilkesboro April 26-29, 2012. It may seem somewhat early, but that word won’t be found in festival director Ted Hagaman’s vocabulary.

“A lot of people think that this starts maybe a month or two before the festival, but this is a year-long process,” he said. “In some cases, we’re looking a year to a year and a half out in our planning and our work.”

A bulk of the planning involves contacting artists, like festival newcomer The Tedeschi Trucks Band, featuring bluesy powerhouse Susan Tedeschi and Allman Brothers slide guitarist Derek Trucks.

“They’re a good example,” Hagaman said. “We’ve had Derek Trucks on the list for two to four years now, and we’re very excited about their first time at the festival.”

When it comes to programming, the MerleFest team uses a formula, careful to strike a balance between all the festival’s genre-spanning performers – blues, Celtic, bluegrass, country, rock, “all the different genres we offer,” Hagaman said. “We try to put a good mix in there, something for everybody.”

A wish list of performers is developed, which is then whittled down.

“Then we start making our calls,” he said. “It’s always interesting to see how it will play out. It’s always interesting when we do get that list made, what we think would be the perfect festival.”

Audience feedback is also valued, with organizers collecting suggestions and data from the festival’s online discussion board. In fact, MerleFest 2011 fulfilled the request of one of its greatest fans and supporters, legendary flatpicker Doc Watson, whose late son, Eddy Merle Watson, is honored through the festival.

“We’d been trying to get Randy (Travis) here on the request of Doc (Watson) for about eight or nine years,” Hagaman said. “And because of schedules and various things, it just did not come about until 2011. A lot of times, that’s how it works. If you don’t get a certain artist there one year and still feel very strongly about having that artist, you put them back on that list for future consideration.”

Hagaman’s hoping fans take early ticket availability into future consideration, as well. The tickets went on sale Tuesday, Nov. 8, and Hagaman expects 60 to 70 percent of the reserved seating – 4,300 seats – to be accounted for within two days.

“There are a whole lot of tickets still available,” he said, “but we do quite a bit of sales … on opening day.”

And by “whole lot,” Hagaman’s not overestimating. MerleFest 2011 saw an estimated participation of 77,000 people, including audience members, volunteers and staff.

“That number varies each year,” he said. “It can be up or down, but most of the time it’s in that 75,000 to 80,000 number. Luckily, we’ve been blessed with people continuing to come and participate. Even in down economic times, we’ve done well, so we really appreciate our fans.”
The same goes for volunteers.

“Our volunteers take ownership, and so many of them have been coming for years, so they know what’s expected,” he said. “They know what to do, and they care, and they really want it to be a good, successful festival and a good time for everyone.”

MerleFest 25 is still accepting volunteer applications, but Hagaman suggests the sooner people apply, the better.

“The sooner you get your application in, the better the chance you have of getting the schedule and area you want to volunteer in,” he said. “Individually, there are about 4,900 volunteer positions available … that’s a lot of positions for a lot of people, and we certainly couldn’t run the festival without a great volunteer base.”

While a bulk of volunteers are MerleFest regulars, the same can be said for fans, accounting for the festival’s friendly, at-home atmosphere – a sentiment even appreciated by the artists.

“We’ve had that told to us several times,” Hagaman said. “In talking to a lot of artists … it’s an opportunity for them to come to a different, unique atmosphere, where they can kind of be themselves. They have an opportunity … to perform with other artists they normally wouldn’t perform with, and they can walk around the festival, mix in with the crowd and just be themselves, which is something they don’t get to do just any time.”

Such was the case with Southern rocker Zac Brown, who performed at MerleFest 2011.

“Last year, from the stage, Zac Brown was talking about that, how he can just walk around and talk to people,” Hagaman said. “If he wants to go buy a guitar in one of our shops, he can do that, and take his kids out, let them participate in the Li’l Pickers Area, just something you don’t get to do every day. We’ve had a lot of artists tell us that.”

Chances are they’ll have a lot more.

Tickets for MerleFest 25 are available online at or by calling (800) 343-7857. An early-bird discount will be available through mid-March.

The four-day festival takes place April 26 to 29, 2012, on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. For more information, visit

The Lineup (So far)

Susana and Timmy Abell
Alberti Flea Circus
Blind Boy Chocolate and The Milk Sheiks
Roy Book Binder
Laura Boosinger
The Boxcars
Jeffery Broussard and The Creole Cowboys
Buffalo Barfield
Sam Bush
T. Michael Coleman
Dailey & Vincent
The Deep Dark Woods
Dehlia Low
Donna the Buffalo
Casey Driessen
Enter the Haggis
Bela Fleck & The Flecktones (original lineup)
Mary Flower
The Gibson Brothers
The Greencards
Mitch Greenhill
Stefan Grossman
Wayne Henderson
Bob Hill
David Holt
The Honeycutters
Sierra Hull and Highway 111
The InterACTive Theater of Jef
Fruteland Jackson
Johnson’s Crossroad
Jubal’s Kin
Kickin’ Grass Band
The Kruger Brothers
Jim Lauderdale
Jack Lawrence
Jeff Little
The Local Boys
Lost Bayou Ramblers
Claire Lynch Band
Dougie MacLean
Bill Mathis
Andy May
Cliff Miller
Misty River
Nashville Bluegrass Band
The Neighbors
Punch Brothers featuring Chris Thile
Red June
Tony Rice
Michael Roach
Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce
Jonathan Scales Fourchestra
The Sigmon Stringers
Sims Country Cloggers
Steve and Ruth Smith
Joe Smothers
Snyder Family Band
The Steel Wheels
Steep Canyon Rangers
Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives
Tut Taylor
Tedeschi Trucks Band
Happy Traum
Doc Watson
Richard Watson
The Waybacks
Pete and Joan Wernick
The Wild Rumpus
Tony Williamson
Wylie & The Wild West
Zephyr Lightning Bolts.

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