With his foot bouncing and the fingers of his fretting hand moving across the guitar strings a mile a minute, Doc Watson performed folk and old-time favorites like “Tennessee Stud” and “Way Downtown” to a crowd of captivated fans. It was the late 1970s, and Watson was playing alongside musician friends and his son, Merle, as he often did. There were cameras and lights and fans everywhere, but Watson looked as relaxed as ever, as if he were back in his family home in Deep Gap, singing and picking among the mountains where he grew up.
After losing his sight as an infant, Watson spent his childhood in Watauga County learning to play music. He first tried the harmonica at age 5 and gradually moved on to the guitar. He eventually became known for his flat-picking style, a unique combination of speed, precision, and keen physical awareness of each movement. Without his sight, he relied on his pinkie finger dragging along the pick guard to determine where his right hand was on his instrument. Watson’s techniques captivated audiences. He went on to win seven Grammy Awards, receive an honorary doctorate degree from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, be called a national treasure by President Jimmy Carter, and, even after his death in 2012, influence generations of guitarists around the world.
The campus of Wilkes Community College, where Doc Watson and his son often performed. photograph by Revival Creatives
MerleFest, April 27-30 — Wilkesboro
When Doc Watson touched the brick sculpture made by Reidsville artist Brad Spencer at the Garden of the Senses, the guitarist recognized himself and his son. photograph by Revival Creatives
On the campus of Wilkes Community College in late April, clusters of white flowers emerge from the branches of a large styrax tree, the centerpiece of the Eddy Merle Watson Garden of the Senses. The arrival of these blooms means that MerleFest — the annual “traditional-plus” music festival — is in full swing. Named after Doc Watson’s beloved son, guitarist Merle Watson, who died in a tractor accident in 1985, MerleFest is a gathering of musicians, fans, and traditions. Every year features a lineup of local and nationally recognized artists — this year’s headliners include Maren Morris and The Avett Brothers.
In 1987, the college’s leading horticulturist asked Watson to perform at a concert to raise money to build the Garden of the Senses on campus. Watson agreed, asking only that the garden pay homage to his late son. The event soon became known as MerleFest, and it has grown larger each year. Watson’s final public performance took place at the festival in 2012, just a month before he died. He picked alongside the Nashville Bluegrass Band on the Creekside Stage, ending his set with “No Hiding Place.”
Cliff Miller has been an integral part of MerleFest since it began in 1988. photograph by Jon Black
Wherever Doc Watson went, Cliff Miller likely wasn’t far behind. The Asheboro native and CEO of SE Systems in Greensboro and Charlotte met Doc and Merle in 1973 while mixing sound from his white Chevy van at a music festival in Angier. The three became close friends, and the Watsons eventually asked Miller to handle the sound for their shows — when needed, Miller even filled in for Merle on guitar.
Since the first MerleFest in 1988, Miller has been an integral part of the event, from finding an outdoor venue next to an old, off-campus cabin when the college’s auditorium was oversold to driving Watson around his final MerleFest. After half a century in the music industry — working with the likes of Alison Krauss, James Taylor, and Taylor Swift — Miller still looks forward to being part of MerleFest each year, where he watches the legacy of his dear friends live on.