MerleFest, the renowned annual bluegrass, folk, and country music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, kicked into gear this weekend with performances from a range of traditionally minded artists including Deep Dark Woods, Dailey & Vincent, and Vince Gill.
The four-day festival is celebrating its 25th anniversary this year with performances from scores of artists, including such notables as Gill, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Bela Fleck, Los Lobos, Marty Stuart, and, of course, legendary flat-picking guitarist Doc Watson.
The festival is named after Doc’s son, Eddy Merle Watson, a superb and accomplished musician in his own right, who died tragically in 1985 in a tractor accident.
The first MerleFest took place in 1988, and among those first performers was Vince Gill. This year, Gill is among many paying tribute to another MerleFest regular, banjo legend Earl Scruggs, one of the linchpins in the founding of bluegrass, who died last month at age 88.
“Bluegrass music made an amazing impression on me when I was young,” Gill told the Winston-Salem Relish. And as for the festival, “MerleFest is honest and authentic,” he continued. “When I’m asked to play, I feel flattered because of who they bring to the festival each year.”
Gill “included but didn’t lean on his best known country hits” during his set, according to a Country Standard Time reviewer. Other performers last night included Dailey & Vincent, the Deep Dark Woods, Steel Wheels, and Donna the Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale. Los Lobos is scheduled for Friday, and Krauss and Union Station play Sunday night.
But while stars like Gill and Krauss make the headlines, festivals like MerleFest are at their core community events that invite and inspire music fans and musicians of all stripes to get together, pick, sing, laugh, and connect around their shared love of music. The stages have great music, sure, but you could argue the heart and soul of the festival is found among the campfire picking parties and drop-in acoustic jam sessions.
Festival founders call the music at MerleFest “traditional plus.” Meaning, as Doc Watson himself described it, “the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we [are] in the mood to play.”
MerleFest 25 takes place April 26-29 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.