Vendors set up along the venue to sell various items, from crafts to garments.
Craft vendors sell and some even encourage participation at MerleFest.
MerleFest’s mascot Flattop attends the festival to interact with children and adults alike.
MerleFest crowds enjoy music at several different stages on the venue’s property.
Eddy Merle Watson was an American folk and bluegrass guitarist that MerleFest is named after.

Vendors set up along the venue to sell various items, from crafts to garments.
Craft vendors sell and some even encourage participation at MerleFest.
MerleFest’s mascot Flattop attends the festival to interact with children and adults alike.
MerleFest crowds enjoy music at several different stages on the venue’s property.
Eddy Merle Watson was an American folk and bluegrass guitarist that MerleFest is named after.
WILKESBORO — MerleFest started in 1988 as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, as well as a means to honor the late son of celebrated folk icon Doc Watson, musician Eddy Merle Watson. Each year, the event draws in thousands of music lovers from across the country to Wilkesboro, where they partake in a four day celebration of all things “tradition-plus” music.
MerleFest is one of the largest music festivals in America, bringing in crowds of more than 75,000 people and an estimated $10 million dollars in business and tourism revenue to Wilkes County and surrounding areas each year. The festival hosts a variety of musical acts, from internationally touring artists to local bands, that perform on 13 stages throughout the four-day event.
Today, MerleFest is the primary fundraiser for the Wilkes Community College Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs. At its inception in 1988, the first MerleFest was planned to raise money for campus gardens.
WCC horticulture instructor Frederick William Townes IV, nicknamed “B,” wanted to build a variety of gardens on campus to offer hands-in instruction to his students. “The Garden Master Plan,” as it was later presented to a board of administrators, included a walking train, Japanese garden, evergreen garden and garden for the blind which would have aromatic plants and Braille identification.
One member of the board, Ala Sue Wyke, knew Bill Young, a close friend of Doc Watson and suggested asking Doc to play a “one-time, one-night, one-man show” to raise funds for the garden for the blind.
Doc agreed to play the benefit show in October 1987 and asked for the garden to be named “Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses,” after his late son, known as Merle.
The concert was originally planned for November 1987, but was moved to the end of April of 1988 to allow more time for planning.
While touring, Doc spoke with many of his and Merle’s musician friends, including Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman and Sam Bush, and the musicians agreed to play the benefit concert for free.
Due to the number of musicians, the one-day concert turned into a two-day festival to be named the “Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival,” later shortened to MerleFest. The concert was planned for Saturday, April 30 and Sunday, May 1, 1988 with all proceeds going to the campus gardens. Doc prompted the festival on his tour, selling out the Walker Center with sales from all over the country.
Doc had a wide reach in the community which resulted in many community members and music industry professionals offering their help to improve the festival. Doc fan Jim Rouse heard about the festival on tour and agreed to get a monument recognizing Merle for the garden for the blind. Musician agent Keith Case helped secure the performers, musician and producer Cliff Miller agreed to set up the sound system, and Jim Matthews organized the building of the outdoor stage. Music producer Ralph Rinzer flew from France to Greensboro to help with the festival schedule due to his friendship with Doc.
Rosalee Watson, Doc’s wife, recommended hosting workshops for musicians to talk about their instruments and musical journey with audiences at the Mayes Pit-Cohn Auditorium. This, in addition to the new outdoor stage, turned the “one-time, one-night, one-man show,” into an annual, two day multiple artist festival.
The first Merlefest ran smoothly, with audience members sitting on hay bales and lawn chairs while enjoying music and community. The group New Grass Revival, consisting of Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn and Bela Fleck, ran late to the venue, having to set up outside to stay on schedule. Townes nervously informed the crowd that in order to see New Grass Revival, they would have to move outside, and the audience did so without hesitation.
The tradition of singing “Tribute to Merle” began as the finale of the first festival when all the artists gathered on stage to sing “A Song for Merle” by Wayne Hayes, a close friend of the Watson family. Hayes and Doc led the singing to the tune of “Will the Circle be Unbroken.”
Following the “Tribute to Merle” was the dedication of the garden for the blind.
In the dedication, Young said, “This evening we are here to celebrate the life of a young man who enriched the lives of all of us who have been present the last two days— Eddy Merle Watson. We remember him with love.”
Local businessman Mule Ferguson recorded the festival and Townes synced the audio, revealing the taped festival at an autumn concert called “Autumn Pickin’ in the Garden,” where Doc and a few friends played on a cabin porch. This event created excitement for next year’s MerleFest.
Over the years, Merlefest has grown and contemporized, while still keeping the same community-based message. Artists began getting compensated in 1989 as the festival hosted a wider variety of musicians and the festival expanded from two to four days in 1991. Also in 1991 came the inception of the Merlefest Outreach Program (which brought music to local schools), the well-known Midnight Jam and a broadcast by UNC-TV.
In 1992, the MerleFest got its logo. Merle’s band, Frosty Morn, used a raccoon in its logo, which was adopted by the festival. A naming contest gave Flattop his name. The Doc Watson Guitar Championship began in 1992 as well.
A shuttle system helped navigate the growing venue number in 1993, the year Thursday night of the festival became known as Bill and Evelyn Young Night to honor the late Bill Young and his widow Evelyn. Bill Young was instrumental in laying the foundation for MerleFest by suggesting to Doc that he perform for a one-time fundraising event for the college.
Also in 1993 came the debut of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. The contest was established in memory of Boone native Chris Austin, a songwriter who was killed in a plane crash in 1991. Proceeds from the contest were designated to establish the Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship to benefit students of Wilkes Community College.
As the festival grew, so did the crowds. In 2001, Merlefest set the record for largest single crowd with 16,000 audience members listening to country music legend Dolly Parton on Saturday night. In 2006, a performance by founding member of the Grateful Dead Bob Weir led to an enthusiastic and vast crowd.
Merlefest has remained true to the college’s mission over the years, which has adapted over time. In 2008, organizers and volunteers began to work toward reducing the environmental impact of the crowds by adding more recycling bins around the venue. In 2010, following the economic recession’s peak year in 2009 which greatly impacted the fundraising efforts of the festival, the community, vendors, sponsors and media came together to revitalize Merlefest.
In 2013, following the death of Doc in May of 2012, Sam Bush hosted the “Doc Watson Tribute Show” which featured a revolving lineup of Doc’s friends and former band members, including Peter Rowan, John McEuen and Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Avett Brothers, Jim Lauderdale, Jack Lawrence, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, David Holt, Bryan Sutton and more.
MerleFest was canceled in 2020 and postponed to September in 2021 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The September 2021 lineup included performances by Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Sam Bush and was filled with improvised jam sessions in the event’s background.
This year’s lineup includes John Turner, Greensky Bluegrass, Old Crow Medicine Show, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush Band, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, We Banjo 3 and many others. In addition to headliners and well-known musicians, there will be vendors and jam sessions.
MerleFest’s history is greatly influential on the festival today. What started out as a one-time benefit concert has turned into 34 years of audiences coming together to enjoy “traditional-plus” music in honor of the Watson family.
“There’s a deep respect for the history of the festival. These genres of music have remained constant from those times to this time and I think that alone speaks to the history,” said Director of MerleFest Wesley Whitson. “The whole thing started as a fundraiser for the college and for the grounds, and we’ve maintained all of those ideals in what we do today.”
For more information on MerleFest, visit www.merlefest.org.
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