MerleFest: Music and Memories

By Frank Ruggiero (

Article Published: Apr. 18, 2013 | Modified: Apr. 29, 2013
MerleFest: Music and Memories

2013's MerleFest will be the first without Doc Watson, its longtime host and Grammy-winning flat-picker, who died in May 2012.
Photos by Frank Ruggiero

Musicians aren’t the only ones getting in tune.

Add festival organizers to the bunch, as they perfect the sound of one of the South’s premier music festivals, MerleFest.

The ever-popular, genre-spanning music festival returns to the campus of Wilkes Community College Thursday, April 25, through Sunday, April 28, promising more than 90 performing acts on 14 different stages.

Despite a diverse lineup and surprises aplenty, this year’s festival – its 26th – is a bittersweet affair. It’s the first without host Watson, the Grammy-winning flat-picker from Deep Gap, who died May 29, 2012.

His absence will be felt by many, including longtime friend and musician extraordinaire Sam Bush.
“I will feel it,” Bush said in an interview with The Mountain Times. “I think we’re going to feel Doc’s presence, and we may be feeling him more than in years past. Because, as we would go through a MerleFest, Doc didn’t want it to all be about him. But I think that this year, more people are going to feel Doc, possibly more than ever.”

Steve Johnson, MerleFest’s artist relations manager, agrees.

“I think there’s a strong connection that Doc will be with us spiritually, watching over the festival,” he said. “Every artist I’ve worked with said they plan to commemorate Doc in some special way during their performance.”

As such, Johnson said he expects both tears and laughter this year, “but at the end of the day, (it) is all about remembering Doc and all he meant and has done for the festival.”

And it’s a sentiment reflected in the lineup. Because of MerleFest’s inherent connection to Watson, many of this year’s artists hail from North Carolina.

“They wanted to remember Doc some special way,” Johnson said. “Whether it’s longstanding MerleFest performers or some new to the festival, you’ll see that they have some pretty strong connections to North Carolina.”

Some of those acts include The Charlie Daniels Band, Steep Canyon Rangers, Warren Haynes with Gov’t Mule and The Avett Brothers.

“Only until I started reaching out to some of the artists this year did I realize how much (Watson) influenced the careers of so many artists along the way,” Johnson said.

Celebration Jam

This will be made all the more evident with a special Celebration Jam Saturday, April 27, from 6:30 to 8 p.m., hosted by Bush and featuring music — and recollecting and reminiscing — from Jeff Little, T. Michael Coleman, Jack Lawrence, Bryan Sutton and David Holt.

The celebration is a continuation of the jam that Watson always led on Saturdays, Johnson said, adding, “There will be a number of special guests coming out over that hour and a half, as well as live performances and video tributes from those artists.”

All throughout MerleFest, audiences will be treated to special video segments, to be aired between sets, featuring Watson.

“It’ll be Doc, himself, telling stories, kind of recounting things that are special to him,” Johnson said. “We were fortunate to capture some of that footage before he left us, so he’ll be telling the story in his own words — a first-person recount.”

Hillside Album Hour

Another highlight, Johnson said, is the ever-popular Hillside Album Hour, in which The Waybacks and special guests perform an iconic album in its entirety. The title, however, is kept secret until the first note is played, and Johnson said audience members will immediately catch on when that happens.

“Selecting an album each year is always both a fun and challenging process,” The Waybacks manager Michael Nash said in a news release. “Once we do decide on something, we begin to drop hints in regular intervals leading up to the show. As the years have gone by, we’ve found that we’ve had to make those harder and harder, as there are a lot of pretty sharp Album Hour fans out there.”

So far, three clues have been given for the 2013 Hillside Album Hour: “This fabled recording studio is no stranger to the Album Hour,” “Two lost orphans find their way home,” and “Check out our post in the Earth Sciences forum.”

“It’s a unique selection,” said Johnson, one of the few who’s in on the secret. “I’m curious to see how everyone responds to this, but I think it’s going to be a lot of fun.”

Past Hillside performances include Led Zeppelin’s “Led Zeppelin II,” The Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” The Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” The Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach” and “Are You Experienced” by Jimi Hendrix.

Midnight Jam

Festival favorite Scythian returns to host this year’s Midnight Jam. Held in Wilkes Community College’s Walker Center, the jam will feature a plethora of bands and band members performing together in what’s traditionally a sold-out show.

“This year’s jam will be special, no doubt,” Scythian band member Danylo Fedoryka said in a news release. “We feel honored to have been chosen to host and will be harnessing the jitters to present an energy-filled jam. We’re excited about the lineup so far and will be mixing and matching players from bands, such as The Waybacks, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, The Black Lillies, The Honeycutters, Pokey LaFarge and a whole slew of other artists.”

Separate tickets are required for the Midnight Jam, and they’re only made available to four-day ticketholders and Saturday-only ticketholders, making them somewhat of a hot commodity.

Spirit of Sunday

Watson’s absence will be strongly felt – and heartfelt – during the Sunday morning gospel set and devotional. This year, in addition to the Avett Family Gospel Hour with Jim Avett and family, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, which traditionally performed with Watson for Sunday morning set, will return with a special tribute to Doc Watson.


Grammy-winning singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale will announce the winners of the 2013 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest on Friday, April 26, followed by the songwriters performing their winning entries on the Cabin Stage at 5 p.m.

In addition, the annual Doc Watson Guitar Championship will be held that same day, judged by bluegrass stalwarts Peter Rowan and Uwe Kruger, along with last year’s contest winner, Benjamin Cockman of area gospel band The Cockman Family.

The annual Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Contest will also be held that Friday, featuring judges Pete Wernick, Steve Lewis and Blind Boy (Jeron) Paxton, as well as last year’s contest winner, Brandon Green.

Dance Tent

For audience members who just can’t keep still, the ever-popular Dance Tent will feature a series dance workshops and all-around foot-stomping fun.

This year’s lineup includes a freestyle dance with Wayne Henderson and Friends, a clogging workshop with Carol Rifkin, Riley Baugus and Kirk Sutphin, a square dance with The Sheets Family, an old-timey dance with The South Carolina Broadcasters, a “hillbilly swing” dance with The French Broad Playboys, a Cajun dance workshop with Bayou Diesel, a Friday Night dance with Scythian and a Saturday night dance with Donna the Buffalo, among many more.

The Shoppes at MerleFest

At MerleFest, memories are made. Sometimes, however, they’re purchased.

The Shoppes at MerleFest, located centrally within the venue, is described by organizers as a “shopping village,” featuring vendors, artisans, demonstrations, official MerleFest memorabilia, a lost-and-found tent, snacks, Internet access and more.

Little Pickers

A slight change to this year’s event is a minor relocation of the Little Pickers Family Area, which offers children’s activities and entertainment, including the MerleFest Youth Showcase, to be hosted by Andy May.

The stage is in the same general area, Johnson said, but “it’s been shifted just a bit to give more room for (the Little Pickers) and for the Watson Stage.”

Surprises Aplenty

MerleFest is known for many things – the most popular being surprises. “MerleFest is always known for those moments that just kind of happen,” Johnson said.

Those moments usually involve spontaneous jamming from the festival’s more than 90 musicians.
“For the most part, the artists figure out a lot of what they want to do … once they arrive and see who’s there,” Johnson said. “That’s when some of the most special moments happen, when it’s not even planned.”

Planning, though, is still essential.

“To me, trying to put 90 artists on 14 stages is like trying to put a 1,000-piece puzzle together without the box lid,” Johnson said. “It’s trying to find the right mix of music that will appeal to a broad audience. I hope we’ve accomplished that. There’s a wide mix of musical genres represented at the festival this year. If someone leaves disappointed, they’re not a music lover.”

The Lineup

Performances on Thursday, April 25, include The Charlie Daniels Band, Leon Russell, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Dehlia Low, Red Molly, The Greencards, Enter The Haggis, Pete and Joan Wernick, Banknotes, Calico Moon, Johnson’s Crossroad, Tut Taylor, The Local Boys, Misty River Band, The Neighbors, The New Familiars, Red Molly, The Sigmon Stringers and The Wild Rumpus.

Performances on Friday, April 26, include Gov’t Mule, The Del McCoury Band and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Steep Canyon Rangers, Peter Rowan, Matraca Berg, Delta Rae, Chris Smither, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale, The Greencards, The Kruger Brothers, The Black Lillies, Scythian, The Waybacks, The Honeycutters, Tony Williamson, The Quebe Sisters Band, Jeff Little Trio, Doug MacLeod, Carol Rifkin, Laura Boosinger, Roy Book Binder and others.

Performances on Saturday, April 27, include the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, Michael Martin Murphey, Peter Rowan Band, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Sutton, Holt and Coleman, Matraca Berg, Chris Smither, Delta Rae, Mountain Heart, Della Mae, The Kruger Brothers, Scythian, Chatham County Line, Donna the Buffalo, David Holt, Pokey LaFarge, Phil Wiggins & Corey Harris, Eilen Jewell, Blind Boy Paxton, Tom Feldman, Mike Farris and more.

Performances on Sunday, April 28, include The Avett Brothers, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tift Merritt, Michael Martin Murphey, The Kruger Brothers, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Avett, Chatham County Line, T. Michael Coleman, Jeff Little Trio, Paul’s Creek Band, Jack Lawrence, Pokey LaFarge, Eilen Jewell, Susana and Timmy Abell, Pete and Joan Wernick, The South Carolina Broadcasters, Roy Book Binder, Blind Boy Paxton, Bobby and Blue Ridge Tradition.


Tickets are available by visiting, calling (800) 343-7857 or at the gate. Gates open Thursday, April 25, at 2:30 p.m. and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m. For more information on MerleFest, visit

MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of Watson’s son, the late Eddy Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in October 1985. The festival is hailed for its celebration of “traditional plus” music, a term coined by Watson to describe the festival’s many musical genres and styles, “plus whatever … we were in the mood to play.”

Additional Images

2013's MerleFest will be the first without Doc Watson, its longtime host and Grammy-winning flat-picker, who died in May 2012.
Photos by Frank Ruggiero

Del McCoury

Sam Bush

Woody Platt of Steep Canyon Rangers

Del McCoury and Preservation Hall Jazz Band

Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers

James Nash of The Waybacks

Jeff Little

John Cowan

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