What began as a one-off fund-raiser for a college garden has grown into North Carolina’s biggest, most beloved music festival. Each year, plenty of famous folk, plain folk, and a bit of folklore converge to bring Doc Watson’s dream to life.
The rain has stopped. The thicket of gray clouds that dumped more than 10 inches of water on Wilkesboro on Thursday untangled overnight, making way for Friday sunshine to warm and dry this patch of the Blue Ridge foothills. Margaret Williams stands outside her mouse-chewed, duct-taped 1999 Coleman Fleetwood Niagara pop-up camper to survey her family’s campsite on the southeastern edge of the Wilkes Community College campus. Moravian Creek, which had swollen to a sweeping flood mere feet from her firepit, has retreated into its banks, back to the knee-high tributary where her children have bathed and played since they were toddlers. The camper and three tents are still erect and pinned firmly to the ground. That terrain, normally a mudhole after such a cloudburst, is relatively dry, thanks to the truckloads of sand brought in by the people on the adjacent campsite, maintenance workers at the college who’ve befriended the Williamses over the past decade or so that they’ve been perennial neighbors on these grounds.
The Williamses and their friends came prepared for the deluge, packing tarps and plastic ponchos and umbrellas among the fiddles, guitars, and mandolins they play around the firepit. After all, this is MerleFest — it rains every year.
Every year, the Williams and Zenger families return to the same campsite to hone their musical tastes and talents at MerleFest. The four-day festival is a time to learn from musical legends, build family memories, and make new friends. photograph by Revival Creatives
At least, it has every year — save one — since 1991, the first time Williams and her husband, Dan, made the 45-minute drive west from Lewisville together to attend the four-day roots and bluegrass music festival that rings through these hills every April. That first visit, they sat in lawn chairs and watched Wilkesboro’s native son, Doc Watson, and his legion of friends pick through a vast catalog of country and what Doc himself called “traditional-plus” music. They camped among the pines, sweet gum, and poplars. MerleFest became their yearly vacation. After their two oldest sons, Walt and Noah, were born, the Williamses packed the diaper bag and towed the tots across the grounds in a red wagon covered with a makeshift canopy. In 2000, the Williamses met Jeff and Julia Zenger, who lived three miles from them in Lewisville and had two children the same ages as Walt and Noah. Both families homeschooled, so they organized frequent social outings. MerleFest became an annual highlight. They bought the Niagara to shelter the family, and as the children grew and siblings arrived, the Williams/Zenger campsite expanded into tents — one for boys, one for girls, one for overflow — until there was room for 13 people.
“We’re proud of our home state. And they are carrying on that tradition.”
Nine kids proved difficult for four adults to herd across a sprawling 150-acre festival, so Williams made MerleFest family T-shirts of neon yellow or tie-dye, a different color and design each year, to help her crew recognize each other in the throng of nearly 80,000 concertgoers. Still, as the kids got older, the parents felt increasingly comfortable letting them roam the campus and play in the sandpits, blow bubbles, paint, or build boats at the Scrap Exchange that they’d later race in the creek. “This has always been a family place,” Williams says.
To keep the MerleFest tradition alive, the Williamses and Zengers have blown off late-April school days and soccer games; junior and senior proms and college classes have been skipped as well. Here, the kids are getting a different education: When Walt was only 2, he saw the Canadian folk band Leahy play the big stage. Transfixed by the fiddle player, he begged his parents for lessons, and a Lewisville violin instructor waived the minimum age requirement. Noah eventually took up the guitar. Years of watching touring acts on the MerleFest stage, wandering past the picking sessions that sprout up there, plucking the instruments at the musical “petting zoo,” and singing around the Williams/Zenger campfire rubbed off on all of the children, each of whom can now proficiently strum a tune. They’ve all performed on the festival’s Little Pickers stage, reserved for young musicians. And in 2016, Walt and Noah played on the Plaza Stage in the band competition.
These days, the Williams and Zenger kids are old enough to plot out which acts and exhibits they want to see, then go their separate ways. But today, before they wander off, they gather at their soggy, sacred campsite, each clad in a different year’s family T-shirt, playing their instruments and singing in sweet descant harmony. Old string songs rooted in the rock and moss of these foothills, reaching for the clouds on the voices of children, some nearly grown. “They understand the tradition,” Williams says. “We’re proud of our home state. And they are carrying on that tradition.”
This is home. For the Williams family, this is heaven.
The four-day MerleFest has always been a family-friendly event, with food vendors, open jam sessions, music workshops, and concerts spread across 150 acres. County schools reward successful students with a day at the festival, free of charge. photograph by Revival Creatives
About 500 yards northwest of the Williamses’ camp, over the hill, past the Creekside Stage and across the college quad, lies an oasis. A rich patch of shrubs, flower beds, and shade trees, partially enclosed by serpentine brick walls, hides in plain sight the heart of the festival. Despite the proximity to several stages, the music visits this spot like a whisper on the wind. The garden’s branches and stems, the walls with their semi-relief sculptures of musical instruments and animals, even the plaques identifying the art and flora, literally reach out to be touched: Their descriptions are written in Braille.
This is the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden of the Senses. Its centerpiece, rooted in a bed of fragrant Sarcococca flowers, is a towering styrax tree, with white blooms that emerge in late April. This garden, or rather the idea of it, was the seed from which MerleFest sprouted. The man who planted that seed back in 1988, Frederick William “B” Townes IV, now stands amid his creation, decked out in a MerleFest T-shirt with long, tie-dyed sleeves, cargo pants, sandals, and a wide-brimmed hat that shades his bearded, 65-year-old face.
Townes is a horticulturist. He came to the college in 1973 to help start the school’s horticulture program back when WCC was just three buildings and a bunch of bald cypress, river birch, and shore juniper. Townes needed some new plants. He envisioned more than a dozen themed gardens — a Japanese garden, a rose garden, a native garden, and a garden for the blind, filled with particularly aromatic and textured flora that stirred the other senses. The latter idea led one of Townes’s friends to suggest appealing to the most famous blind person in the area: Doc Watson.
“Here, young people are getting a glimpse of their heritage.”
Watson was a native North Carolinian, born near Deep Gap, a half-hour west of Wilkesboro. There, after losing use of his eyes to an infection before his first birthday, Watson steeped his ears in traditional string music — bluegrass, country, and folk. He taught himself guitar and banjo and went on to become a prominent flat-picking figure of the folk revival in the late 1960s. In October 1987, Townes met with Watson and asked if he would play a one-night, one-man, one-time-only show the following April to raise funds for Townes’s garden. Watson agreed on one condition: that Townes find a place in the project to memorialize Watson’s son, Eddy Merle Watson, who had died in a tractor accident two years prior. Townes agreed.
It was RosaLee Watson, Doc’s wife, and Doc’s daughter, Nancy, who had the idea of inviting some of Doc’s musician friends to play a multiday festival. Townes, who wasn’t a musician, is said to have replied: “What’s a music festival? And what kind of music do you play?”
The first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival was a two-day affair. Legends like Earl Scruggs, Marty Stuart, Chet Atkins, and Grandpa Jones played two stages — one, a 1,100-seat auditorium, and the other, a flatbed trailer parked in a campus field. It rained a little both days. No one in attendance seemed to mind.
The second year saw a permanent outdoor stage with a “between-acts” second stage on the porch of a 200-year-old log cabin reconstructed on the same field. The two-day schedule eventually became three, and then four. More stages were added along with more acts to fill them. In 1993, there were more than 26,000 attendees; by 1995, that number had ballooned to 38,000. About this time, a singer-songwriter named Kay Crouch wrote a letter to Townes asking when the next “MerleFest” was scheduled. The shortened name stuck, with Doc and RosaLee’s blessing.
MerleFest quickly became a big moneymaker for the college, funding much more than Townes’s gardens. It paid for new buildings, hardware like the first fax machines, and the arrival of the Internet. The quad was even physically raised six feet to ease the flooding due to rain. By 2010, attendance had surpassed 79,000, bringing an estimated $10.2 million to the regional economy.
Frederick William Townes IV asked Doc Watson to play at a fund-raiser for a new on-campus garden. The legendary musician agreed, and asked that the concert be named after his late son, Eddy Merle Watson. Townes is often referred to as the grandfather of MerleFest. photograph by Revival Creatives
But the festival has never outgrown Doc Watson’s influence, even after his death in 2012 at age 89. From the outset, Doc wanted the event named after his son to be a family affair, with events and exhibits for children. Kids age 12 and under get free admission. No alcohol can be sold or consumed on-site. Early on, Townes borrowed the idea of other bluegrass festivals to send visiting artists into local schools to introduce students to music. County schools allow some students to miss class and attend the festival as a reward for academic achievement. “Americana is known as an old person’s music,” Townes says. “Here, young people are getting a glimpse of their heritage. We’re giving them something beyond what many of their parents can give them. And from here, young musicians are finding their own path.” But he wants young people to remain in the community, too. For that, Townes says, “you give them roots and you give them wings.”
When 80,000 music lovers converge on a town of 3,500, things get crowded. Wilkes Community College’s 150-acre campus is busting at the borders with 13 stages and myriad tents for food, vendors, and activities, leaving just enough space for people themselves to move and stand and sit, and precious little room for campers and cars. Shuttling patrons efficiently to and from these off-site lots and campgrounds is a formidable task. Fortunately, MerleFest has a crew of young area volunteers prepared for the challenge.
After the stages have shut down for the night, picking sessions break out like campfires.
Throughout each day of the festival, Scout buses line up at the curb along South Collegiate Drive, the main artery leading into the campus. Some of the white buses are emblazoned with American flags, others with a simple blue stripe, but all of them feature a troop number. And today, campers heading out to the River’s Edge campgrounds, on the east end of town, are ushered by the khaki-clad Scouts of Troop 340 out of Roaring River. Helming the shuttle is 64-year-old Gary Hoots, a former mail carrier and Scout leader.
Dum Dum suckers are laid out in a neat row on the dashboard. Hoots hands one to each kid who climbs aboard. Hoots is dressed in jeans and a blue button-down shirt. Sunglasses hide his eyes and a thick mustache obscures his face, but the mesh in the back of his hat reveals a bare scalp. “My hair was blond,” he says. “Then it turned brown. Then it turned loose.” He laughs at his own joke, checks the back to make sure the seats are filled, and then reaches over to pull the door shut.
The bus turns onto NC Highway 268, and Hoots honks an air horn at another Scout bus he passes. “I love meeting people,” he says. “And I love the Scouts.” As the campers file out, almost everyone stuffs a wad of bills into the metal box by the door. Wilkes County officials say that the tips fund an entire year’s worth of activities for each Scout group and cover about 75 percent of their annual operating costs.
All day long, the buses shuttle visitors to campus, where 13 stages host more than 100 musicians over the four days. At picking sessions, anyone can pull up a chair and play along. Dancing lessons are offered in a wood-floored tent. Music and history lectures, workshops, and songwriting contests are held in classrooms all over campus. Outside, rows upon rows of vendors peddle everything from guitars to dream catchers to cotton candy.
Famous and up-and-coming musicians perform on the festival’s 13 stages. The Avett Brothers, the Grammy-nominated folk-rock band from Concord, will play again at this year’s MerleFest. photograph by Sara Brennan
Off-campus campgrounds hold their own forms of entertainment. Year after year, campers reserve and return to their favorite sites. Buses shuttle them to shows and bring them back to recharge before the evening performances. A nap, a quick meal, maybe a beer — alcohol, prohibited at MerleFest, is perfectly legal off-site for those of age — and fans are ready for round two. Even after the stages have shut down for the night, impromptu picking sessions break out like campfires all across the grounds, often rollicking until dawn.
The most famous of these satellite mini-festivals is known proudly as SewerFest. In 1998, when the Wilkesboro Fire Department asked to create an overflow campsite to raise firefighting funds, the town opened up the Wilkesboro Wastewater Treatment Plant two miles east of the festival. There are 500 tent sites, 150 RV hookups, two climate-controlled shower houses with more hot water than you could ever need — and two huge open-air reservoirs of soon-to-be-treated raw sewage.
The faint odor that occasionally wafts toward the park does nothing to inhibit the campers. SewerFest is known as the liveliest party in town. In fact, many campers come for the four days in April, set up camp, and never set foot on campus.
Cecil Ford has been coming to SewerFest for 10 years, but he hasn’t been to MerleFest in years. “I come all the way from L.A. — Lenoir Area,” he says, referring to the town 40 minutes southwest. Ford’s regular plot is right next to the treatment plant’s entrance. “We’re the first campsite you come to,” he says. “We get to see the buses go by. We wave. They hoot and holler.”
Then they go back to playing. Tonight, Ford and his guitar huddle around a space heater beneath a tarp awning, in the glow of a mechanic’s lamp rigged with a plastic-bucket light shade. Clear plastic spoons and forks dangle from the bucket, creating a backwoods chandelier. Ford and his crew — a bass player, a mandolin player, and two other guitar players — page through a songbook of Patsy Cline, Johnny Cash, and Bill Monroe, and take turns singing.
“Dave!” yells one player. “Why don’t you stop standing over there looking sexy and come over and sing?”
One of the players is Brian Young, visiting from Ocala, Florida. He met Ford and company here a few years ago while toting his instrument around, sitting in with different groups. But even for friends from just down the road, SewerFest can be a reunion. During this weekend, Ford plays with folks from near and far. “It’s the only time we get to see them,” he says. Savoring every minute of this jam session with his MerleFest family, he’ll play well into the wee hours. And if things go as they usually do, he’ll meet a few new friends who walk or stumble by to listen. “The drunker they are,” he says, “the better we sound.”
A group of SewerFest campers huddles under a tent for a late-night picking session. The Wilkesboro Wastewater Treatment Plant opened in 1998 as a festival campground, quickly earning an odorous nickname. Still, it’s one of the most happening places in town during MerleFest. photograph by Revival Creatives
Long, Sunday morning shadows reach across Camp Williams. The air is thick with smoke from the fire that still smolders beneath a pair of charred logs, just hot enough to warm up a pot of coffee.
“Coffee, coffee, coffee,” Margaret Williams says, as if praying over her cup. Perhaps she’s trying to conjure some sort of caffeinated spell to spur on her campers, who, after a night of playing, singing, and s’mores, are a bit slow to rise at 8 a.m. The task at hand is tearing down and packing up. There’s still a full day of festival left, but the idea is to be ready to leave directly after that final encore. Gradually, the children stir, the girls moving a little faster to break down their tent than the boys. “The boys’ tent is always worse,” Williams says, holding her nose.
Her 16-year-old daughter, Anna, is particularly eager to be released from chores and let loose on the campus.
“Is your sleeping bag in your sleep sack?” Williams asks. “Have you got your capo?”
“Where’s your guitar?”
“In the camper.”
By 9 a.m., everyone’s up, gathering instruments, rolling up sleeping bags, collapsing tent poles, and sweeping off the tarps and tents. The chores are interrupted by the sound of amplified instruments echoing through the trees and rocky hillside: musicians warming up on the Creekside Stage, just a few yards away, over the hill. Another tradition held over from Doc Watson is the MerleFest Spirit of Sunday Devotions. Doc himself used to sit and play gospel songs and spirituals for festivalgoers who were away from their traditional places of worship. In fact, Doc’s final such performance, in 2012, was the last time the Williamses ever saw him. As churchgoing folks, the Williamses never miss this Sunday morning ritual. “It’s part of the routine,” Williams says. “It’s part of what we do.”
The warm-up notes ring through the woods like a church bell. The children and adults know they’ve been summoned and head west, toward the opening chords of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken”:
By and by, Lord, by and by There’s a better home a-waiting In the sky, Lord, in the sky
Gravel crunching beneath their boots, one by one and two by two, the Williamses, Zengers, and scores more families climb the hill, stepping out of the forest shade and into the light.
MerleFest On the grounds of Wilkes Community College Wilkesboro merlefest.org
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