MerleFest Returns for Doc Watson’s Birthday Celebration

MerleFest returns April 27–30!

Spring 🤝 live music. Kicking off concert season is MerleFest, a celebration of “traditional plus” music (aka a unique mix of sounds from the Appalachian region—think bluegrass, Americana, country, blues, rock and others) taking place April 27–30 at Wilkesboro Community College. The term was coined by the late, great Doc Watson, who founded the festival 35 years ago to honor and remember his son and fellow picker Merle.

This year marks what would have been Watson’s 100th birthday and festival organizers have pulled out all the stops to celebrate, including one of the most impressive lineup of headliners the festival has ever hosted (!).

Acts include NC’s own The Avett Brothers; Southern rockers The Black Crowes’ Chris and Rich Robinson; Little Feat and Marcus King; the reunited acoustic Nickel Creek; country phenoms Maren Morris, Lori McKenna, Miko Marks and Tanya Tucker; guitar virtuoso Tommy Emmanuel; and perennial MerleFest fan-favorites Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and house band Scythian—just to name a few.

While it’s almost always the headliners that draw in the crowds, it’s the myriad other artists—the ones found in the small print on the bottom of the festival poster—that make MerleFest so special. That’s because those lower-tier acts playing on the Creekside or Cabin stages today often find themselves as the headliners on the main Watson Stage in a few short years. And that’s when you can brag that you “discovered” the latest “overnight” success. It’s win-win!

On that quest for the next musical phenom, don’t miss the annual MerleFest Band Competition. The contest allows festival attendees to hear previously unknown talents from across the country as they compete on the Plaza Stage on Saturday for the coveted spot of performing on the festival’s Cabin Stage in front of thousands of festivalgoers. 

Of course, MerleFest is about so much more than the music that’s played on more than a dozen stages, around campfires and in spontaneous picking circles that pop up all over the rolling campus. It’s about shopping at unique vendors and eating a variety of yummy local fare, which also supports the community in a variety of ways. Most importantly, it’s about the people—from the longtime volunteers to the fans who have never missed a festival in 35 years to the folks who will show up for the first time—but not their last. Think of it like both a homecoming and a reunion for the musicians and their fans. 

“I love everything about MerleFest,” says Raleigh’s Danny Rosin, president and co-owner of Brand Fuel, who never misses attending the festival with a gang of family and friends. “But one of my favorite things about MerleFest is that I see folks there that I only see at MerleFest year after year. It’s really special.”

For this particular milestone event, organizers will also feature MerleFest’s unique history and present unique collaborations to honor the founding folk icon. In addition to the Doc-Centennial, not-to-be-missed traditions include Donna The Buffalo’s opening night dance party on Thursday, The Waybacks’ legendary Album Hour set on Saturday at the Hillside Stage, and a trio of Sunday morning gospel sets at the Creekside Stage. Another highlight will be Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday Jam hosted by The Kruger Brothers on Saturday. Also new this year: My Name Is Merle, director Robert Kinlaw’s latest documentary, is set to premiere Saturday at 4:30pm at the Walker Center. 

The weekend forecast currently anticipates rain—but would it really be MerleFest if it didn’t?! No matter what, it won’t stop the music. Rock on!

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Angela Brown
Angela Brown is the author of our Business & Economy section.