MerleFest: Grass Roots

Mission Temple Fireworks Revival at MerleFest 2018. Photograph by William Sparkling

For the uninitiated, MerleFest wasn’t named for Merle Haggard, although the country legend has performed at the top-rated Americana roots festival over the years. MerleFest, now synonymous with its mix of traditional, roots-oriented music from the Appalachian region, was named for another musician, Eddy Merle Watson, son of the late, great guitarist, singer and songwriter Doc Watson. 

A 2.5-hour drive from Raleigh, MerleFest’s 2019 headliners—The Avett Brothers, Brandi Carlile, Wynonna & the Big Noise, Dailey & Vincent, Tyler Childers, Keb’ Mo’, Sam Bush, The Earls of Leicester, Peter Rowan, Amos Lee, The Milk Carton Kids, Steep Canyon Rangers, Scythian and The Del McCoury Band—will no doubt draw music fans to the campus of Wilkes Community College in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains. 

One of the best things about attending MerleFest, whether you’re there for the first time or the 15th, is all of the “new” acts just waiting to be discovered as you wander among the festival’s 13 stages. In between the headliners’ sets on the main Watson Stage are myriad opportunities to check out lesser-known acts among the 80-plus artists set to perform.

Here are six reasons why you should make the short trip to the annual musical homecoming event, which marks the unofficial kickoff to the region’s outdoor music festival season. 

1.The Late Night Jam. Raleigh’s own Chatham County Line will host this year’s event, presented by The Bluegrass Situation. This MerleFest tradition takes place Saturday night from 10:30 p.m. until 12:30 a.m. at WCC’s 1,100-seat Walker Center. Be warned, tickets are sold separately for this event and sell out quickly.

2. The Food. Vendors representing local schools, churches and other organizations serve up a wide variety of delicious dishes—from Thai cuisine to pinto beans to European-inspired pastries from Wilkes Community College’s baking and pastry arts students.

3. The Hillside Album Hour. This wildly popular set will see its 12th incarnation Saturday. The Waybacks, a supremely talented band of musicians with roots in the San Francisco Bay area, came up with the idea for the set and over the years, it has included mashups of artists playing such classics as The Allman Brothers’ “Eat A Peach,” Bob Dylan’s and the Band’s “Before the Flood,” and The Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band.”

4. The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Upcoming songwriters get the opportunity to play their original songs before a panel of professional songwriters and other insiders from the Nashville music scene. Jim Lauderdale hosts the contest and past winners include the recently Oscar-nominated Gillian Welch, the Triangle’s Tiff Merritt, Chapel Hill-based Mipso’s Joseph Terrell and Melody Walker of Front Country fame.

5. Battle of the Bands. The annual MerleFest Band Competition features talented bands from across the country, each performing for 15 minutes.

6. Backstage Tours. These 15-person tours are a relatively new addition, led by guides who have firsthand knowledge of MerleFest. The tours include a visit to the Doc Watson Dressing Room, which many fans consider hallowed ground. 

MerleFest takes place in Wilkesboro, NC from April 25-28. Get tickets and more info at merlefest.org. Early Bird Tier 2 tickets available through April 24. Remaining tickets will be sold at the gate during the festival.