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|Location(s)||Wilkes Community College
Wilkesboro, North Carolina
|Years active||1988 to present|
|Founded by||Doc Watson|
|Date(s)||last weekend in April|
MerleFest is an annual "traditional plus" music festival held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina on the campus of Wilkes Community College. The festival, which is held the last weekend in April, was hosted by Grammy Award winner Doc Watson prior to his death and is named in memory and honor of his son, Eddy Merle Watson, who died in a farm tractor accident in 1985.
The festival, founded in 1988, is the primary fundraising event for Wilkes Community College and attracts crowds exceeding 79,000 in number, making it one of the largest music festivals in the United States as well as the 3rd largest tourist attraction in the state of North Carolina. The music is spread across 14 different stages and four days, which promises non-stop excitement for festival goers. Its annual economic impact on northwestern North Carolina exceeds $10 million and the festival has contributed nearly $9,000,000 to Wilkes Community College.
MerleFest offers a generation and genre crossing mix of traditional and contemporary roots music, a music blend that Doc himself named "traditional plus." It brings together the very best of Bluegrass, contemporary acoustic, blues, folk, old-time music, Cajun, jazz, country, Celtic, Americana, rock and singer-songwriter music. Artists can often be enjoyed in on-stage jam sessions featuring unusual combinations of musicians, such as Bob Weir, formerly of the Grateful Dead singing with Sam Bush and Gillian Welch with the Waybacks.
Other artists who have performed on MerleFest's 14 stages over the first 24 years have included Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, The Kruger Brothers, Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Prine, Alison Krauss and Union Station, Donna the Buffalo, Natalie MacMaster, Vassar Clements, Hot Tuna, David Grisman, Ricky Skaggs, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Junior Brown, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Elvis Costello, Howard Armstrong, Randy Travis, Lyle Lovett, The Doobie Brothers, Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, Sharon Gilchrist, The Avett Brothers, Tony Rice, Old Crow Medicine Show, Steve Martin, Zac Brown Band, Dierks Bentley, Linda Ronstadt, Levon Helm, Taj Mahal, Bruce Hornsby and Vince Gill.
The willingness of some performers to step outside of their traditional music confort zone is what festival organizers consider one of the things that add the "plus" to the trademark description as being "traditional-plus." Whether it's playing with other musicians or performing solo outside their usual genre, with Dolly Parton, Vince Gill and Marty Stuart as examples of Nashville artists who have been successful at Merlefest, it's what makes the festival special, says director Ted Hagaman. MerleFest has contributed to the success of many students, songwriters and musicians by opening doors of opportunity. The monies raised by the music festival directly impact WCC students by providing scholarship assistance. Additionally, MerleFest offers the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, which gives up-and-coming songwriters a national stage on which to introduce their talents. Budding musicians have a great opportunity to be discovered by participating in the MerleFest instrument contests: The Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Contest and the Doc Watson Guitar Championship.
In addition to world class music, MerleFest presents various workshops, a student showcase for children, a children's area called The Little Pickers Area, a Songwriters Coffeehouse, Heritage Crafts, and unique shopping experiences from over 70 vendors in the Shoppes at MerleFest. The popular and ever-so-lively Pickin' Place is open throughout the festival for anyone to sit and jam with other musicians.
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