Saturday morning, September 18. It’s sunny, hot, and humid. Typical mid-September weather but not what forecasters had expected. We were supposed to have overcast skies and possible thunderstorms for four days straight. Instead, we had a few hours of drizzles and an otherwise dry, yet steamy weekend.
Great news for festival operators and music lovers, not so much for an out-of-shape flatlander navigating the hills.
I trudged up the dirt road, getting a ride from a volunteer driving a golf cart, to meet Mary Lew Johnston at her campsite.
Petite and outgoing, Mary Lew is a Wilkes County native living in Utah. She started camping at Sewerfest around 2004. The place is as the name suggests: 500 tent sites and space for 150 RVs, situated at Wilkesboro’s wastewater treatment plant.
Sewerfest is the result of a deal the Wilkesboro Volunteer Fire Department made with the town to accommodate the tens of thousands of attendees that flowed each year to Merlefest, the sprawling, national gem of music festival in Wilkes County, North Carolina.
Mary Lew has only missed one Merlefest—2001—when Dolly Parton performed and Doc Watson joined for a few songs. The session drew more than 30,000 fans, a record.
“I’m still kicking myself for missing that one,” she says.
Her campsite is at the end of a cul-de-sac on “Roger’s Ridge,” one of more than a dozen areas listed on a rough map of the wastewater plant property. Dirt roads run everywhere.
It’s quite a view. From the edge of the cul-de-sac, you look out at the tree-covered hills, the campsites below, and, as Mary Lew tells me, the best view of the “brown fountain,” the aeration system that sprays purified wastewater near the end of treatment process.
She’s there with friends: Stephanie Jeffreys, a relative Merlefest newbie from Ohio, who has entered the festival’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest; Drew Highland from West Virginia, “who doesn’t do anything but drink Cokes”; her cousin, asleep in the truck; and Fritz, an 18-month-old, show-stealing poodle mix.
Her main group numbers about 30 most years, camping on adjacent sites on Wickles Hill. This year, roughly 20 made it.
For Merlefest organizers, that’s quite all right. They’re just glad they could host it at all.
Merlefest was a Doc Watson creation. Blind since he was one year old, the legendary singer, guitar player, and guiding light to generations of traditional musicians was born and lived in Watauga County, about a half-hour from Wilkes Community College, where the festival resides.
He developed a style of playing that transformed the acoustic guitar from a rhythm instrument to the centerpiece of many folk and bluegrass bands. His magnetic stage presence and lightning-fast playing won over fans who might never pick up a guitar. As a performer, he won seven Grammys, a lifetime achievement award from the Grammys’ Recording Academy, and a National Medal for the Arts from President Bill Clinton for what Rolling Stone called “his impact on national heritage music.”
Merlefest is a celebration of “traditional-plus” music. Translation: whatever Doc liked.
The festival has also become an economic and cultural engine for Wilkes County, a region of northwestern North Carolina that’s generated more than its share of innovations, yet seen few of them stick around. Merlefest is one of the few.
Merlefest isn’t the nation’s oldest continuous traditional music festival. That honor belongs to the Old Time Fiddlers’ Convention in March at Union Grove in Iredell County dating from 1924.
Nor is it the largest. That would be the 20-year-old Hardly Strictly Bluegrass Festival in San Francisco, which attracts hundreds of thousands each fall to Golden Gate Park.
It’s not the most famous, either. That’s probably the Telluride Bluegrass Festival in Colorado’s gorgeous San Juan Mountains. Telluride draws about 12,000 people daily for a few days each June to the remote resort community.
But Merlefest holds a special place for musicians and music fans.
The festival has an origin story that’s been told countless times. In the mid-1980s, Frederick “B” William Townes—known to everyone as just “B”—led the horticultural sciences program at Wilkes Community College and had developed a master plan to beautify the hilly 150-acre campus. The first piece of the plan was a garden for the blind—a natural setting near the middle of campus where visually-impaired people could learn about trees and plants through their other senses.
His plan needed money. His friend Bill Young, a musician and local businessman, suggested a benefit concert with Young’s friend Doc Watson. Doc, and his wife Rosalee, lived less than an hour away in Deep Gap. Townes and Young made a visit.
Doc resisted at first. But he said he’d do the show if the garden were named after his late son and musical partner—Eddy Merle Watson had died several years before in a tractor accident.
Everyone agreed, and set a date for a performance at the college’s theater. But there was a problem.
“I went to the president of the college, telling him we had scheduled a concert with Doc Watson at the Walker Center on this date in November,” Townes told me. “He looked at the calendar and said, ‘You can’t do it. It’s booked.’”
Crestfallen, Townes and Young returned to Doc’s house to break the news.
“Rosalee put her hand on my knee and said, ‘We’ll just have a festival instead.’”
Townes was a horticulturalist, not an event promoter. He wasn’t even sure what kind of music Doc played. He just wanted to fund his garden. “What’s a festival?” he asked.
And so, in April 1988, the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Music Festival, eventually known as Merlefest, came to life.
Today, the show sprawls 13 venues across a 150-acre campus. It generates as much as $15 million in economic activity for the region. Between 70,000 and 80,000 people attend over the festival’s four-day weekend—more than doubling the county’s population. As many as 100 separate acts perform.
It’s the major fundraising vehicle for the community college’s foundation, which underwrites scholarships for low-income students, as well as equipment and facilities for WCC and its satellite campuses. In the early 1970s, the main campus was just three buildings. Today, there are more than a dozen.
The festival also gives a six-figure financial boost for as many as 75 civic organizations that sell food and merchandise on the campus grounds, in addition to area businesses that gain extra traffic from festival-goers.
COVID-19 disrupted that pattern. The 2020 festival was canceled. The 2021 version was moved to mid-September to allow full attendance, with masks required indoors and vaccinations or negative COVID tests required for everyone on the grounds.
Attendance and economic impact estimates aren’t expected until late November but it was clearly a smaller crowd than normal.
Of the half-dozen Merlefests I’ve attended since 2007, this was the most lightly attended. I’d be surprised if more than 50,000-55,000 passed through the gates. But after a year of quarantine, it was still an eye-popping number in a year when most festivals ran small. Telluride, for instance, only allowed 2,000 fans, spaced in pods. Others stayed all virtual, with bands on stages in huge parks but no fans.
And the crowd’s energy, as it watched, performed, and volunteered was familiar: joy. We made it another year. We’re back with our friends, our temporary families, our community of music lovers.
I met B Townes at the gazebo in the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses a day before Merlefest 2021 opened. We talked about what has been and what is now.
Doc and Rosalee died in 2012, within a few months of each other. And Richard Watson, Merle’s son and successor as Doc’s sideman, died of a heart attack in 2016.
Still, in their absence, the festival keeps going.
Doc bonded with audiences because he was self-effacing, humble, and wildly talented. His dynamism and humor nearly jump through your speakers as you listen to his performances. I recommend “Live at Club 47,” a recently unearthed recording from a 1963 performance in Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Doc was only beginning to get attention on the folk music scene. His performance at Club 47 shows how he became an overnight sensation—at age 40.
In part because he couldn’t see, Doc was a great listener and accompanied others brilliantly. Musicians were honored with an invitation to play for Doc and his fans at Merlefest. It’s a sentiment that remains.
Sam Bush is the founding father of progressive bluegrass, a genre that incorporates the electric instruments and electronic effects—and drums!—eschewed by Bill Monroe and some of the other old-timers. Bush is one of the few musicians to have played every Merlefest.
“It does me good spiritually to be here,” he told PBS NC. “We’ve all been away for the winter and we all get to come together in the springtime in the beautiful hills of Carolina. So it kinda helps us get started each year.”
“My oldest son got to see [Doc play] once,” said another Merlefest favorite, guitarist James Nash of The Waybacks, in a tribute to Doc recorded last year. “He says he’s not sure he remembers, but I make sure he doesn’t forget.”
In its early years, Townes and Doc visited festivals around the continent. Townes absorbed what did and didn’t work logistically as Doc educated the horticulturalist about the music.
“I was Doc’s eyes and he was my ears,” Townes told me.
Merlefest’s evolution is shown through its changing lineups. In 1988, it was largely Doc’s friends playing alone and in ad hoc groups. The next year, it resembled a regular bluegrass festival with full bands —Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys, Ralph Stanley’s Clinch Mountain Boys, Hot Rize, and others. Then came the folk and blues singers: Pete Seeger, Etta Baker, Si Kahn, Michelle Shocked.
Soon, the mix started including Celtic and Cajun music, Western swing, Bakersfield country, and even classic rock like The Doobie Brothers, Little Feat, and Los Lobos. New stages were added to accommodate the volume and variety.
This year, Mavis Staples and Melissa Etheridge played Merlefest, as did Sturgill Simpson, LeAnn Rimes, JohnnySwim, and the Tedeschi Trucks Band. They’re bands that run the spectrum from hard-core country to old-school soul, to modern R&B. Why invite them to a bluegrass festival?
Because Merlefest isn’t a bluegrass festival. Or folk. Or blues. Or country. Or rock. It’s a big tent festival, capable of mixing elements of all these genres into a celebration of music and community.
That’s one view. The other is that Merlefest has become a grab bag of music that has lost its cohesion and its way. The expansive musical mix has some detractors, including some who love the Watson family and Merlefest.
Cathy Fink, a multiple Grammy Award-winning folk singer and producer, first played Merlefest in 1991 with her musical partner Marcy Marxer. A song she wrote during the pandemic was a finalist in this year’s songwriting competition.
In an interview with me, Fink said she worries that “the trajectory of this festival is not unlike the trajectory of a lot of things … It started as a grass-roots celebration of Merle and Doc and the music of the area, [and over the years] it’s almost become a monster of an event.”
She says Merlefest has fallen prey to the corporate suits, the desire to attract more money, to draw the “bus acts,” performers who ride the tour bus to Wilkesboro, do a set to a packed house, and leave—with the musicians sometimes even lacking a connection to Doc Watson and the culture he represented.
But exactly what that culture was can be hard to capture. Doc was not easy to put in a box.
In the 1950s, he played electric guitar at rockabilly and Western swing dances. The band didn’t have a fiddle player, so Doc transposed fiddle tune riffs into guitar solos.
Doc became a sensation in his 40s, pioneering a style of playing with a flat pick, hitting single strings with an up-down motion, like a fiddle player maneuvers the bow. His picking was lightning-fast, often quicker than and as precise as other guitarists who used all five fingers to pick.
He’d do this while singing and accompanying himself on harmonica. He played everything from murder ballads to Piedmont blues, from country to show tunes to rock and roll.
Pete Wernick, the first president of the International Bluegrass Music Association, is a banjo player, music teacher, and founding member of Hot Rize, a progressive bluegrass band based in Colorado that played the second Merlefest. The inaugural festival was the only one he missed.
“The guiding principle of Merlefest is ‘music that Doc Watson likes,’” Wernick told me, “and Doc was very eclectic.”
In 1990, Wernick said, Townes “sat me down because he knew I had been to a lot of festivals,” including the first bluegrass festival, in 1965, in Fincastle, Virginia. “He understood that I had some knowledge that he might partake of and I was glad to share it.” Wernick sent a detailed memo to Townes after each Merlefest, suggesting what worked and what didn’t. He said he was gratified that many of his recommendations were adopted.
At Townes’ invitation, in 1991 Wernick, and his wife Joan, began running weeklong “jam camps” in Wilkesboro before each Merlefest for aspiring bluegrass musicians and songwriters of all ages. It’s another way to pass along knowledge among generations. The tradition continues today and the campers get an extra benefit: They open one of the evening sessions, playing a set on the Cabin Stage.
The traditions of Appalachian music run deep in the area, even though they may not be obvious. It’s picking-on-the-porch music. With few exceptions, it’s not very commercial.
Wernick mentioned the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society (WAFS) and Junior Appalachian Musicians, two seat-of-the-pants organizations that teach kids about “mountain music” and keep the spirit alive.
WAFS oversees three jam tents at Merlefest for informal pick-up sessions—bluegrass, old-time, and “anything goes.” Bring your instrument and join the jam.
JAM runs after-school programs in several states. Wernick worked with one of its “graduates,” teenager Liam Purcell, whose band Cane Mill Road was named IBMA’s best emerging artist in 2019. A photo of Purcell, who grew up a few miles from Doc Watson’s home in Deep Gap, highlighted promotional buttons for this year’s IBMA World of Bluegrass in Raleigh. Purcell and Cane Mill Road played three sets at Merlefest.
Another local prodigy had his time in the sun. Presley Barker, a 17-year-old flat-picking guitarist from Wilkes County’s Traphill community, auditioned for this year’s “American Idol.” He won an invitation to Hollywood to perform for the judges but was eliminated before the finals.
At this year’s Merlefest, Barker told a Cabin Stage audience he wishes he’d gotten to know Doc. He closed his Sunday set with a smoking-hot version of Doc’s “Black Mountain Rag.”
Barker was only 8 years old when Doc died. But here the teenager was, playing a Depression-era fiddle tune Doc Watson popularized for guitar at the festival that Doc built.
Holly Evans Carver was looking a little worried.
Her son Brant Wimmer, Wyld Fern’s 18-year-old guitarist, snapped his G string during a solo in the band’s first song, a set Saturday afternoon in The Little Picker’s Tent, a stage set aside for performers 18 and younger. The four-piece band, also featuring Brant’s sister, 11-year-old fiddler Lake Carver, finished the song and then was briefly stymied. How to proceed?
After a short, frustrated pause, Brant headed backstage for a new “wire,” as Doc would call his strings. The other band members exchanged glances, and then broke into the Flatt & Scruggs classic “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Ettore Buzzini, the 13-year-old banjo player with an epic mullet, swapped solos with Lake as 15-year-old bassist Owen Combs anchored the rhythm.
Before the trio wrapped up the next number, “Orange Blossom Special,” featuring Lake’s high-lonesome vocals, Brant was back, even taking a quick solo before they moved on to complete their set.
Holly’s kids are in two other bands, with different configurations—the Nomads and Southbound 77 Bluegrass. All three groups played at least one set at Merlefest.
For the kids, the performance stood out in an otherwise disrupted year. Brant graduated high school in June and is a freshman in college, making regular rehearsals tough.
Lake spent her pandemic year honing fiddle chops. It paid off. She won first place in the youth bluegrass fiddle division in August at the 85th Galax Old Time Fiddler’s Convention, one of the nation’s oldest.
The Nomads were short-handed during Merlefest. Elijah Moore, their 17-year-old mandolin player, was representing North Carolina in the National Mandolin Championship at the Walnut Valley Festival, in Winfield, Kansas. He placed third.
Ettore finished first in the youth bluegrass banjo competition at Galax in 2019 and 2021. Southbound 77 placed fifth among youth bluegrass bands.
They, and other young pickers, are a core attraction of Merlefest. Fans and other musicians want to keep traditional styles thriving and evolving. They want to see the next generation of performers in their early days. The musicians get an opportunity to perform in a professional setting in front of more than their family members and friends.
“The staff drives the kids around in golf carts from one stage to another, just like the adults,” Holly tells me.
Moreover, influential songwriters and producers in the Americana scene attend Merlefest. In a casual environment, they can learn about young acts, watching them up close.
Merlefest has long highlighted young artists. Nickel Creek first played the festival in 1995, when Chris Thile, Sara Watkins, and Sean Watkins were teenagers. Sierra Hull, a three-time IBMA mandolinist of the year, was 15 when she and her band Highway 111 first played the festival. A YouTube video shows 10-year-old Hull jamming on the sidewalks of the WCC campus with then-teenage Thile, who later hosted public radio’s “Live From Here.”
Molly Tuttle, a two-time IBMA guitarist of the year, won the festival’s Chris Austin Songwriting Contest when she was 19.
Passing along and enhancing musical traditions to the next generation keeps Merlefest vital, Townes said. In 1990, he visited the IBMA Convention, then in Owensboro, Kentucky. Part of IBMA’s programming included outreach to local schools. Townes added that to the festival’s agenda the next year.
Artists perform at most Wilkes County schools, typically on Thursday. As many as 30 bands have participated in a single year, including veteran artists such as Ricky Skaggs, up-and-comers including Nickel Creek, and North Carolina stars like the Avett Brothers.
On the festival’s second day, Friday, all the county’s fifth, eighth, and 12th graders get a day off from class and free admission to the festival. The schools bus students to the campus and they have free run of the grounds throughout the day.
Wernick said he knows of no other music festival that offers that much outreach to local students.
Students aren’t required to attend the performances, but many do. Of course, they check out the face-painting exhibits, the craft shops, the climbing wall, and the food tents, too.
It’s another way to give young Wilkes Countians exposure to music they probably wouldn’t hear otherwise. It’s part of the attempt to keep what gets old, rooted in the young.
Wilkes County has punched well above its weight in creativity. But along with the small textile and furniture factories that have shuttered in many Southern towns, most of Wilkes’ signature entrepreneurial landmarks are gone.
For a time, North Wilkesboro-based Northwestern Bank was the state’s fourth-largest financial institution. It was absorbed during the bank mergers of the 1980s and now is part of Wells Fargo.
Holly Farms chicken began in Wilkes County. For a while it was the nation’s largest poultry processor. Tyson bought the company in a contentious takeover 30 years ago. A huge processing plant remains in downtown Wilkesboro, but the corporate headquarters is in Arkansas.
Founded nearly a century ago, North Wilkesboro Hardware Store eventually changed its name, becoming Lowe’s Home Improvement. Its founders took advantage of the postwar building boom and became the world’s largest hardware retailer before Home Depot’s big box stores surpassed it. Lowe’s adopted the big box model and is No. 2 worldwide, but its headquarters moved to the Charlotte area about two decades ago.
In Wilkesboro, a large call center is all that’s left.
Then there’s the North Wilkesboro Speedway, a track that predates NASCAR. It was the fastest short track on the circuit. It also lost out to the big boys, in part because track-builder Enoch Staley was a stubborn populist who refused to add corporate suites and luxury boxes. He kept ticket prices reasonable, which kept purses low. In 1996, a year after Staley died, NASCAR pulled out of Wilkes County.
As Andrew Carter wrote in the News & Observer earlier this month, a provision in the state budget would divert $20 million of federal COVID relief money to the speedway for infrastructure repairs and other fixes. Local business owners and county taxpayers may invest another $40 million or $50 million for upgrades as well. But the main NASCAR series probably isn’t coming back.
Tyson and Lowe’s remain the county’s two biggest employers. Window World, Merlefest’s title sponsor, has its corporate HQ in the county and employs a few hundred people.
The governor’s budget also recommends $5 million for a “Moonshine Heritage Trail” that would go through Wilkes County. Plenty of former moonshine runners, including Wilkes County native and “Last American Hero” Junior Johnson, transitioned to become the early faces of NASCAR.
The NASCAR truck series might consider races at North Wilkesboro, Thomas Salley, head of the Wilkes County Tourism Agency, told me. A renovated track also could host concerts, fairs, and other events.
LeeAnn Nixon, president of the Wilkes Economic Development Corporation, told me she sees a refurbished North Wilkesboro Speedway as a location for corporate retreats—and attracting entrepreneurs to consider investing in or relocating to Wilkes.
These plans remain just that until the state budget is resolved.
Merlefest faces another transition next year. Ted Hagaman, who became the festival’s director in 2010 when B Townes retired, is retiring from WCC. Wes Whitson, who’s been the festival’s assistant director for the past five years, will take over. In a news release, Hagaman said he’ll serve as a mentor for Whitson during Merlefest 2022, but it’s Whitson’s festival to run.
Sewerfest is in transition, too. Until this year, you could buy a Sewerfest t-shirt. Now, the shirts read “Wilkesboro Campground.” The fire department’s retirement fund, the original good cause the site was created to support, is fully underwritten. Proceeds are now financing a playground at Cub Creek Park that can accommodate people with individual or developmental disabilities. Food sales were handled by parents and students involved with the Wilkes Central High School Band. The town sold soft drinks and bags of ice.
Amber Garwood, an administrator for the town’s wastewater department and campground, told me that the campground is open year-round. There’s a disc golf course on the grounds. Along with Merlefest and the Carolina in the Fall festival, hosted by the Kruger Brothers, the campground is available for other events.
Garwood said the town decided to remove “Sewerfest” from the t-shirts to let people know that Merlefest wasn’t the only reason to consider using the campground.
Other changes are happening, too. Garwood’s predecessor Keith York and those who ran the campground during Merlefest would let campers keep the same spots year after year, giving them a deadline to renew or release. Under the new rules, the town opens reservations for campsites online in January, first-come, first-served. Regulars have to be ready to log on at the appointed time.
This was Garwood’s first Sewerfest. She began working for the department right before the 2020 festival was canceled. She had a year to get ready, and expected there would be some hiccups as she became the point of contact for campers.
Perhaps it was appropriate she got her feet wet in a year attendance was down. Despite the rumors, Sewerfest isn’t going anywhere, she said. She hopes to maintain the neighborhood atmosphere and service, even if the town no longer formally advertises “Sewerfest” as an event.
Mary Lew Johnston and other campers I spoke with said that even if the town tried to change the name, for one week, the village of Sewerfest would always be their home away from home.
“It’s like this little neighborhood that exists one week per year,” she said. “We’ve got our neighbors who know, ‘That one lets his dog bark all day when they go to the festival and that one doesn’t take his trash out,’” she laughed. “And then there’s the ladies who come around with food and ask, ‘Do you want a biscuit?’ It’s been a great communal experience.”
This story of community was surprisingly personal for me. I grew up in Wilkes County and left when I enrolled at UNC-Chapel Hill four decades ago. But as I began reporting, I learned among other things that I’m a distant cousin of Doc Watson by marriage. My late father, who ran a commercial nursery in Wilkesboro, was the third Wilkes County resident that B Townes met when he joined the WCC faculty to teach horticulture in the early 1970s. And my brother-in-law, an engineer, helped Townes and a crew raise the main Watson stage by six feet to ease flooding concerns.
The traditions of Appalachian music Merlefest sustains and reveals have withstood the loss of its founder and many of its performers, the careers of its organizers, and a 28-month interruption by a once-in-a-century pandemic.
“If you love this kind of music, it doesn’t matter [if] you’re not from that area,” Pete Wernick, a native New Yorker who lives in Colorado, told me. “It’s a very precious thing [for us] to feel welcome there.”
“The fact that it’s also supporting the [local economy], all those things are a huge quilt of influences that all come together at Merlefest. For it to have lasted this long and to have grown and been healthy for so long is a minor miracle … All of it is miraculous to me.”
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the year B Townes retired. It was in 2010.