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MerleFest Tradition

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Article Published: Feb. 28, 2013 | Modified: Feb. 28, 2013
MerleFest Tradition

Blind Boy Paxton

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MerleFest 2013, slated for April 25 to 28, will feature a wide variety of music and performers on 14 stages.

But one of the elements that make this four-day event so special to many attendees is the celebration of traditional music.

"Over the years, MerleFest has played a critical role in preserving traditional mountain music,” said musician Carol Rifkin, also a noted writer and specialist in matters of traditional music. “The fact that a nationally important festival like MerleFest presents and celebrates mountain music and dance helps keep the traditions alive, making it available to a larger audience and preserving it for future generations."

The branch of folk music referred to as traditional music can be divided into several smaller categories, some unique to North Carolina. For instance, the Carolinas are known to be a center of old-time, sometimes called string band music, but best described as the music that was handed down from generation to generation strictly by performance, before the influence of radio and recorded music.

Old-time music is based mostly on fiddle (the Anglo-Irish influence) and banjo (the music’s African roots), with guitar being added early in the 20th century. A good example of old-time music’s banjo-fiddle-guitar combination from the 1920s was Charlie Poole and the North Carolina Ramblers. Critics have noted that the roots of both bluegrass legend Bill Monroe and country music icon Hank Williams can be heard in this old-time music group.

At MerleFest 2013, the tradition of old-time music can be heard in its modern-day performers like the South Carolina Broadcasters, Blind Boy Paxton and Paul's Creek. In fact, Rifkin is a member of Paul’s Creek, a band that performs the mountain string band style of the Western Mountain.
Rifkin knows the dance style of Doc Watson's first cousin, Willard Watson, and has danced many times over the years with Doc and Merle Watson and later with Doc and musician David Holt. Rifkin will perform again on the traditional stage with Holt, as she did for many years with both Holt and Watson.

Even more specifically, the old-time music that hails from the Surry County, Yadkin Valley region of North Carolina is referred to as Mt. Airy style, or “Round Peak” style, after the nearby summit of Round Peak in the Appalachian Mountains.

Musicians, like Benton Flippen, Charlie Lowe and legendary Mt. Airy fiddler Tommy Jarrell, helped popularize the style, where the rhythm of the banjo is what differentiates it from other styles of old-time. MerleFest 2013 attendees wanting to hear the style of music unique to this region should check out Riley Baugus and The Sheets Family.

North Carolina traditional music is also known for Piedmont blues, a distinctive style of guitar playing that might be compared in sound to ragtime. Musicians who have been influenced by Piedmont blues music include Paul Simon, Mark Knopfler and the late Doc Watson. One of Watson’s signature tunes, "Deep River Blues," is a prime example of the Piedmont blues sound.

Another performer familiar to fans of the Piedmont blues sound is the late Etta Baker, who hailed from Caldwell County. Known for her beautiful arrangements and driving rhythm, Baker’s guitar repertoire ranged from late 19th-century parlor music to intimation of blues music styles that would define the post-World War II urban electric blues that became popular in Chicago and Detroit and gave birth to rock ’n’ roll. Baker was a frequent performer at MerleFest before her death in 1996 at the age of 93.

At MerleFest 2013, fans can hear Piedmont blues performed by Roy Book Binder and Tom Feldmann.

No discussion of traditional music, North Carolina and MerleFest would be complete without a mention of performer Holt. For over three decades, his passion for traditional music and culture has fueled a successful performing and recording career. He has earned four Grammy Awards and performed and recorded with many of his mentors, including Doc Watson, Grandpa Jones, Bill Monroe, Earl Scruggs, Roy Acuff and Chet Atkins.

The performer’s efforts toward performing and preserving the music of Appalachia have earned him the Uncle Dave Macon Heritage Award, the Brown-Hudson Folklore Award and an induction into the Blue Ridge Music Hall of Fame. Fans of MerleFest have most certainly caught Holt in performance at the festival and can do so again this year.

Tickets for MerleFest 2013 may be purchased at or by calling (800) 343-7857. An early-bird ticket discount is available through March 10.

MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro.

MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson, who died May 29, 2012. MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles. The festival hosts more than 90 artists, performing on 14 stages during the course of the four-day event.

The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.

Additional Images

Blind Boy Paxton
Photo submitted

David Holt
Photo submitted

Tommy Jarrell
Photo by David Holt

Carol Rifkin
Photo submitted

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