Merlefest marks 30 years

Merlefest marks 30 years

8:46am Apr 22, 2017
Rosalee Watson, Doc Watson, Merle Watson by Jim Morton
(L-R) Rosalee Watson, Doc Watson & Merle Watson in 1982.
Jim Morton courtesy of Merlefest

It started as a small festival, on a rural northwest North Carolina community college campus.  Doc Watson, the great inheritor and advancer of music traditions from Deep Gap, NC, collaborated with Wilkes Community College to create an event memorializing his son and musical partner, Merle, who had died in a tractor accident.  Doc, his wife Rosalee, Merle, and Merle's son Richard are all now dead, but Merlefest lives on.  

Doc's idea was for the event to encompass the most traditional sounds and everything they infuenced.  After all, he called the music he himself loved and played "traditional plus".   Today, there's a lot of emphasis on the "plus" -- and perhaps Doc would have liked that, as broad-ranging a musician as he was.  But even as roots music expands in style and reach today, the Traditional Stage continues at the festival. Some very traditional-sounding artists are always there and on other stages.  Based on what he told me in interviews back in the festival's early days, Doc would have wanted them there as well as the bluegrass, blues, country and pop stars whose music draws gigantic crowds to Merlefest. 

Across the Blue Ridge helped to promote Merlefest in its first years.  Doc Watson came to the WFDD Public Radio studios, where the show was based, to perform and talk about music. I personally performed at Merlefest numerous times, often with senior traditional musicians we wanted to showcase. I did MC work along with Michelle Johnson and others from WFDD at several stages. For a few years we recorded music at the Traditional Stage. It was an exciting if occasionally challenging time as the festival started growing from its rather simple beginnings to become one of the top audience draws in roots music. 

On this week's Across the Blue Ridge we explore the festival's history and philosphy in a conversation with publicist Devon Leger, and listen to some of the artists at this year's upcoming event, April 27-30.  Merlefest has made available additional photos and we will post some of these as well over the coming days.   -- Paul Brown