Photo courtesy of MerleFest on Facebook

MerleFest 2021 Sticks to Its Roots

In Do, September 2021, Web Exclusive by Lisa Snedeker1 Comment

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WEB EXCLUSIVE Despite changes, the 33rd annual MerleFest promises to be one fun-filled event.

The show must go on, as they say, and so too will MerleFest 2021, taking place Sept. 16–19 this year on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. Albeit a little different this year (as most things are these days…) the 33rd annual MerleFest will bring the high energy and exciting performances seen in years past—and promises to be worth the 2.5-hour drive from Raleigh.

MerleFest, now synonymous with its mix of traditional roots-oriented music from the Appalachian region, will feature a plethora of world-class bands and artists on its 13 stages, including Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks, Melissa Etheridge, Mavis Staples, Margo Price, LeAnn Rimes and so many more.

Named for musician Eddy Merle Watson, son of the late, great guitarist, singer and songwriter Doc Watson, MerleFest has maintained its deep roots as a launchpad for young artists like longtime “house band” Scythian, who performed in the parking lot outside the festival for attendees waiting on buses before being invited in by Doc Watson, who also “discovered” Old Crow Medicine Show, while they were busking on a sidewalk in Boone.

And it’s those young artists that help make MerleFest moments so special. For bands like Into the Fog, who will make their MerleFest debut on Saturday on The Plaza stage as part of the annual Battle of the Bands, their 15 minutes of fame could lead to a full set on the Hillside Stage if they win.

Having the opportunity to perform at MerleFest is a dream come true for Into the Fog band member and Wake Forest native Brandon Stephenson, who performed at Cary’s Lazy Daze Arts and Crafts Festival and during the latest edition of Banjos and Beers with Hank Smith at Raleigh Times. 

“MerleFest is one of the most prestigious bluegrass festivals in the country, and I love Doc Watson so much, so it’s definitely an honor to perform there and get a chance to prove ourselves,” Stephenson said before the band’s set at Raleigh Times. 

And make sure you sit in on some of the finalists in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Upcoming songwriters get the opportunity to play their original songs in front of a panel of professional songwriters and other insiders from the Nashville music scene. Jim Lauderdale hosts the contest, for which past winners include the likes of recently Oscar-nominated Gillian Welch, the Triangle’s Tiff Merritt, Chapel Hill-based Mipso’s Joseph Terrell, and Melody Walker of Front Country fame.

You also don’t want to miss the Late Night Jam, a MerleFest tradition on Saturday night at WCC’s 1,100-seat Walker Center. This year’s Jam is hosted by Shinyribs and Music City Roots and features Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo, Brittney Spencer and more in a Gulf Coast-themed jam.

And, finally, bring your wallet because you’re going to want to do some shopping at The Shoppes at MerleFest, which is full of local and not-so-local artisans and their wares, and multiple vendors representing local schools, churches and other organizations that serve up a wide variety of delicious fare—from Thai cuisine and giant turkey legs to pinto beans and cornbread to hot dogs and hamburgers to European-inspired pastries from Wilkes Community College’s baking and pastry arts students.

So whether you’re a first-timer or have been coming to MerleFest since 1988, you’re in for a glorious weekend of live music, local vendors, delicious food and what’s sure to be one unforgettable time. Let the show go on! Proof of vaccination or negative COVID test required for entry; for more more information and tickets go to

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