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MerleFest – The Great Americana Music Festival

The huge Americana music festival Merlefest 2008 is taking place this weekend in Wilkesboro, NC. I attended my first Merlefest two years ago. I thought I would re-publish the experience I had in 2006 here on Yahoo Music for those planning to attend or thinking of attending. It's an event not to be missed.


I'm back from my first MerleFest in Wilkesboro, NC, which I attended with my lovely wife, her sister Caroline, and my good friends: Joel, Keith, and Lauren. I must say, it was an experience I will remember for a long time to come. In fact, MerleFest will now be a planned yearly event for my friends and I.

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If you're not familiar, the festival was started in 1988 as a one-night-only tribute concert to the late Merle Watson, the talented son of the legendary Doc Watson. Merle died three years earlier in a tragic tractor accident, but this springtime music celebration has helped make Merle Watson a name that will live forever.

After that first year in '88, the festival became an annual event and has steadily grown to mammoth proportions. This past weekend, MerleFest welcomed over 82,000 music fans to enjoy 4 days of music, art, dance, food, storytelling and more. The music is grounded in Americana and this year featured 90 acts to choose from over the course of its four day run.


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A few months ago, I booked a couple of campsites at the WFD campground for our group. My decision was based on positive reviews I found via the Internet. But one week before the festival I discovered that the campsites I reserved, which are run by the Wilkesboro Fire Department, were located at a wastewater treatment plant. Needless to say, I was a bit nervous that selecting a place nicknamed "Sewerfest" would not make me the most popular person among our friends.

However, as it turns out, "Sewerfest" was a place that I'll be going back to for years to come. The campgrounds were neat and clean, complete with green grass, trees, hills, and a river. The staff was exceptional; as soon as we arrived we were guided by a golf cart to our tent site. There were plenty of hot showers, clean restrooms, free firewood, dirt-cheap yet palatable food, coffee, and free shuttle service around the clock to and from the concert site. And most importantly, alcohol was allowed. The WFD campsite was filled with a diverse crowd, all of whom seemed to have their own fireside jam sessions going on. They also provided a heated "jam room" for the musically inclined to meet and create music. Some of the best moments we had were meeting people and sitting in on neighborly jam sessions. I highly recommend Sewerfest despite the name.

Festival Organization

As I get older I tend to shy away from festivals for a multitude of reasons. However, music is not one of them. I tend to decline because of my negative experiences with festivals in general.

Some of these include, but are not limited to:

1. Long lines - I really don't enjoy waiting in huge lines to see a band from 3 football field lengths away, nor do I enjoy waiting a half-hour to use a disgusting porta-potty .

MerleFest eliminated all of this; the lines were quick and efficient at the entry, exit, bathrooms, and food lines.

2. Poor sound - Outdoor concerts are notorious for sub par sound, but every stage I visited at MerleFest, both inside and out, sounded clear and pristine without being TOO LOUD.

3. Price gouging - When you finally get into a concert that you paid good money for, it's a slap in the face to find a bottle of water costs $4 and a hotdog $7. MeleFest prices were fair across the board for food, drink, and merchandise. The only thing I saw that did not fall in line was the CDs. The MerleMall was a tent where you could find band T-shirts, posters, and CDs. The CDs were priced at $18, which is just plain ridiculous but I won't go there now. Just be warned, you really should buy CDs elsewhere.

4. Obnoxious fans - I have saved the best for last. Nothing can ruin a concert experience quicker than rude people, like the guy who puts his girlfriend on his shoulders right in front of you, or the drunk who vomits at the entrance to the bathroom, or the idiot screaming pathetic song requests to artists who already have a set list. And no, I don't want to see your naked breasts, hidden by painted-on Grateful Dead logos, and I don't want to buy a nitrous balloon. MerleFest contained none of these distractions. At first I was bummed about the no alcohol policy inside the gates but now I see how it makes for a much more pleasurable experience for all involved. Not to mention there was plenty of time to party at the campground. If I drank during the day in addition to what we did at night, I would have been hating life.

The Music

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It's an impossible task to explain the depth of talent at MerleFest this year. From the master himself, Doc Watson, to fantastic traditional Appalachian music, to modern "newgrass", to Alt Country, traditional Country, Blues and Jazz, it was all here. Some of the bigger names that performed included Nickel Creek, Emmylou Harris, Gillian Welch, Bob Weir, Bela Fleck, Pete Seeger, Tony Rice Unit, Thad Cockrell & Caitlin Cary, Hot Tuna, Slaid Cleaves, Robert Earl Keen, The Grascals and The Duhks.
For a full listing of all 90 artists see the MerleFest website.

The festival featured 12 stages spread out over the Wilkes Community College campus. Between these stages you could find anything you would desire including, arts and crafts, food, drinks, CDs, clothing, Internet access, sand sculptures, instrument tents, a lost and found, medical services, and even a huge kids area that included a bounce castle, painting and crafts area, a full size teepee, a flea circus, and even an area where children could see birds of prey up close. We did not bring our children this time, but we certainly won't have any qualms about it as they get older. The patrons were well behaved and courteous, and we never heard any yelling or saw any obnoxious behavior. We did see a diverse cross section of people from all age groups.

The only negative about the weekend was deciding which bands to see, and getting everyone to agree! It was hard, but for us it broke down like this.


1. Doc Watson with Richard Watson, Charles Welch, T Michael Coleman and Maggie Peterson - There is simply no better way to start the weekend than with Mr. Doc Watson, who I was lucky enough to meet backstage.

2. The Avett Brothers - This band's recordings haven't really grabbed me, but their live show was superb, I'll be giving them some more spins and will be looking for future releases.

3. The David Bromberg Angel Band - So-so, There were only glimpses of the talent that Bromberg displays in his quartet. It was not bad, but I found myself doing more people watching than listening, a good show keeps my attention and doesn't let go.

4. Gillian Welch & David Rawlings - Flawless performance, they were a highlight for sure, and they are both super nice people. Not only did they make us feel welcome with their good nature, but when we asked for a photo they suggested a second pose. After meeting Gillian And David I could have went home a happy man.

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5. We opted out of the Waybacks with Bob Weir to see both the Duhks and the Mammals performing together on the same stage. It was billed as the "Platypus Jam." Get it? Anyway, this show was easily the most electrifying of the weekend. The energy was amazing and the crowd was whipped into a screaming, dancing frenzy. Highlights included the super-human voice of Duhks singer Jessee Havey and a cameo by the grandfather of Mammal Tao Rodriguez-Seeger, who happens to be the 87 year-old folk legend Pete Seeger.

We wanted to see Robert Earl Keen, but it was a long day and we really wanted a warm fire and a cold beer.


1. Tony Rice Unit - This show was technically impressive, 4 virtuosos doing things with their instruments that simply blew my mind. Although I'm more into vocal music, I'm glad I saw this instrumental show. He did a version "My Favorite Things" based on John Coltrane's arrangement that left me stunned.

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2. Slaid Cleaves - I've been a fan of Slaid Cleaves since discovering his albums Broke Down and Wishbones late last year, simple country-centric songs with heart. His band included only an incredibly tasteful guitarist/background vocalist, and a red and orange-haired violinist/background vocalist. I got to meet them all and Slaid was as nice as he sounds in his songs, the guitarist was especially kind and talkative, and the violinist was not interested in speaking to the press or was simply anti-social.

3. The Grascals - This was excellent bluegrass played really, really fast. The vocals were a little too piercing for my tastes, but the talent here is obvious.

4. The Duhks - This is the only show we could not squeeze into. It was in the dance tent, and it was packed. The Duhks had the place rocking and from what I saw and heard from other fans, this band was the most exciting in terms of pure energy.

5. The Ditty Bops - Without a doubt, they were the most "Indie" thing we heard at Merlefest and a welcomed change of pace. They played some songs from their upcoming album, which will be a must hear.

6. Nickel Creek - A great show as expected. Highlights included some fun cover choices including Randy Newman's "Short People", Britney Spears' "Toxic" and The Band's "The Weight".

Back to the campground for our best night of meeting people, playing music, and generally having a great time at Sewerfest.


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1. Double Decker String Band - They are a real mountain jug band. Fun and interesting, but they could not keep my interest for more than 45 minutes.

2. Caitlin Cary and Thad Cockrell - I have to pick this show as my overall favorite. They had excellent sound and the songs were all right on the money. Caitlin and Thad's voices were angelic and their stage banter was hilarious. The band was also first-class and included a superb steel pedal player who was a ringer for Garth of Wayne's World fame.

3. Doc Watson - Doc was on the main stage with a ton of folks doing a tribute to Merle. It was like a campfire jam with a bunch of acoustic guitars in a semi-circle trading songs. It was the most intimate show for 50,000 I have ever seen.

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4. The Grascals - Well, there was nothing going on elsewhere that made us want to leave the backstage area of the Watson stage. And there were too many famous people walking around, so we stayed. This is when I met Doc Watson and saw some Duhks get kicked from their table for smoking. We also saw Roy Bookbinder, The Lee Boys, David Rawlings and Sarah Lee Guthrie at this time.

5. Emmylou Harris - She still sounds great and was the last voice we heard before we headed home.

I went into MerleFest thinking I would see one good show. But I came out loving not just the music, but the whole experience. I never thought I would say this, but it was not only fun, but easy. It proved to me that festivals can indeed be a weekend well spent.

Merlefest 2006 Playlist

1. Deep River Blues - Doc Watson

2. Pretty Girl From Annapolis (Live) - The Avett Brothers

3. Death Came A Knockin' - The Duhks

4. Follow Me To Carthage - The Mammals 

5. Turn! Turn! Turn! (To Everything There Is A Season) - Pete Seeger

6. Swing 42 - Tony Rice Unit

7. Breakfast In Hell - Slaid Cleaves 

8. Me & John & Paul - The Grascals

9. Angel With An Attitude - The Ditty Bops

10. When In Rome - Nickel Creek

11. Conversations About A Friend (Who's In Love With Katie) - Caitlin Cary 

12. Two More Bottles Of Wine - Emmylou Harris

13. I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll - Gillian Welch 

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