Last June, Richard Eddy Watson died of a heart attack, at age 49, in Boone. His father, Merle, died at 36 in Lenoir in 1985; grandfather Arthel Lane (“Doc”) Watson, passed away at 89, four years ago, in Winston-Salem. This year, roughly 75,000 people will gather, as they have since 1988, to celebrate the Watsons’ weighty, multi-generation musical legacy at an event called MerleFest.
The First Family of Americana pioneered and promoted eclectic hybrids of old-time, folk, Appalachian, bluegrass, jazz and pop music, bringing it to the public as artists in the LP heyday and – via the ongoing annual MerleFest coming up April 28-May 1 in Wilkesboro – launching or energizing the careers of hundreds of others.
It began as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, its home, with music sessions, open-mike opportunities, competitions, contests and stages for homecoming-like sessions for seasoned pros.
With these and other components in place, MerleFest has evolved into a multi-stage extravaganza considered the largest and leading annual show of its type. It attracts performers from all over the world, but points up the massive contributions northwestern North Carolina has made to roots music. The continued strength of MerleFest is one reason the International Bluegrass Music Association has been staging its annual conference, festival and awards show in Raleigh (Sept. 27-Oct. 1 this year; www.ibma.org).
Pick your day or days to attend (camping options are available). Unlike, say, Bonnaroo, MerleFest is a listening-focused, family-friendly event; alcohol and tobacco are banned.
MerleFest entertainment the first Thursday begins around 2:30 p.m. and ends around 11 p.m. Headliners include Donna the Buffalo, Allison Brown, the Steep Canyon Rangers and John Prine.
Performers next Friday (9 a.m.-11 p.m.) include Jerry Douglas and Old Crow Medicine Show. Featured on Saturday (9 a.m.-10:30 p.m.) are the Kruger Brothers and Sam Bush Band. Notables on Sunday (9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.) include Tim O’Brien and Jason Isbell. The Walker Center on campus will also hold a Midnight Jam on Saturday/Sunday (midnight-2 a.m.; separate ticket required).
Plan ahead by checking the online schedule. Some bands, like Celtic-bluegrass-rockers Scythian (veterans of the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games), play multiple days. Others, like John Oates, play only one.
John Oates? Wasn’t he...?
Yep: The ’80s pop star who sold a zillion records with Daryl Hall. The duo plays Charlotte’s PNC Music Pavilion in May; Oates – now with a solo living that’s veered into acoustic Americana – plays MerleFest Saturday.
Jim Avett plays two sets (one gospel) on Sunday. He’s the father of Seth and Scott – the Avett Brothers.
With 13 stages, you can see young performers, traditional acts and cutting-edge hybrids. And fleas.
The Alberti Flea Circus – an actual sideshow flea circus, a throwback to old-time fairs and fests – will be itching to entertain you all three days.
John Bordsen: 704-358-5251
Want to go?
Wilkes Community College, in Wilkesboro, is ordinarily about 90 minutes north of Charlotte. Plan ahead for heavy festival traffic. Single-day tickets are $45-$70; multiday tickets are available; four-day admission with reserved seating at the headliners’ Watson Stage are $220-$230. Online discount through April 27. Details/tickets: www.merlefest.org.