WILKESBORO (April 14, 2022) – It all started with the campus gardens. And oh, how it’s blossomed.
What started in 1988 as a one-time fundraiser for campus landscaping at Wilkes Community College has grown into an annual, four-day event with 12 stages that feature bluegrass, country, gospel, zydeco, fusion music and everything in between, fueling a $12 million regional economic impact.
MerleFest resumes its regular schedule from April 28-May 1 this year.
“We are basically all about the music, and having great moments, and creating memories,” Allison Phillips, Executive Director of the Wilkes Community College Foundation, says in the accompanying video. “And that is our motto: Music, Moments and Memories.”
The festival has featured iconic performers in bluegrass, country and folk music: Dolly Parton. Willie Nelson. Del McCoury. Sam Bush. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Emmylou Harris – a UNC-Greensboro alumna1 who performed at the first festival – will return this year. And country star Josh Turner will headline the 2022 festival.
But it’s also featured talent in eclectic genres that aren’t so easily pigeonholed: The Steep Canyon Rangers. Elvis Costello. Mavis Staples. The Avett Brothers. Molly Tuttle. Celtic/Ukrainian/Americana band Scythian. The Kruger Brothers – classically trained musicians who moved from Switzerland to live near Doc Watson’s home. And this year, Greensky Bluegrass.
Phillips shares a story about how Doc Watson was riding through Boone one day, heard Old Crow Medicine Show busking on the street, and said, “Wait – we need to hear them.”
“That was what Doc was all about – ‘traditional-plus’ music,” Phillips says. “The only thing Doc asked in the beginning was that we name it after his son, Eddy Merle Watson.” Merle Watson, who began accompanying his father on guitar when he was 15, was killed in a tractor accident at age 36 in 1985.2
“When you talk about coming full circle to the festival and what it means – that’s what it means. It’s a homecoming for Eddy Merle Watson. Of course, it’s our number one fundraiser,” she says.
The festival is also the largest fundraising event for dozens of local nonprofit organizations, as well as an economic driver for the entire region.
“Really, helping the students is what is most important to us,” Phillips says. MerleFest generates dollars not just for student scholarships, but for student clubs, which they in turn use for pinning ceremonies, testing, tools – you name it.
“I think that’s been the beauty of the community piece within the community college,” Phillips says.
She notes how Doc and Rosa Lee Watson both died in 2012.
“It’s been a loss, losing Doc. And we lost Rosa Lee. But we’re still doing OK. And we’re excited about the future,” she says.