WILKESBORO — Sept. 16-19, marked the triumphant of return of MerleFest, the “traditional plus” music festival held each year in Wilkesboro following its year hiatus due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
This year’s line-up featured main stage performances from musical heavyweights, such as Sturgill Simpson, Tedeschi Trucks Band and Sam Bush, however, some of the most memorable moments of the festival were made by pickers gracing the improvised jam sessions in the event’s background.
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 Americana.
Known as a Mecca for roots music, while big-name artists perform for the masses on MerleFest’s Doc and Merle Watson Stage, droves of amateur and semi-professional musicians form their own jam sessions, drawing in small crowds of onlookers who cheer following their impromptu performances.
One such musician is Frankie Key, a local picker and longtime MerleFest fan who enjoys the traditional music swapping sessions found throughout the festival. A native of Wilkesboro, Key stated that he got his start as a musician by participated in local jam sessions as a young man.
“This gives everybody the opportunity to share the music regardless of what you play, if you’ve never played, or if you’ve never played with nobody,” said Key. “This kind of gives everybody the unique opportunity to play with people from all over.”
Beneath the small festival tents labeled “Bluegrass Pickin’” and “Traditional Old Time,” musicians from the North Carolina Mountains played with pickers from as far away as Kansas. Here, the musicians had the opportunity to give each other pointers, swap tunes and form long lasting friendships around music.
“It’s just people to people interaction. It’s the music, music is the bond that ties everything together,” said 18-year-old fiddle player Darrius Flowers, a first timer to MerleFest. “Anybody can just come along, and you meet new people, tie new bonds and make new friends, so on and so forth. And I feel like that’s very important.”
Other musicians, such as Gabriel Kelley, recalled coming to MerlFest as a child. Returning to the festival as a member of the Nashville based Hogslop String Band, Kelley spoke about the influence the event has had on traditional music through the years.
“It was really the best place I think in the country, and the best festival in the country, to come hang out and hear old-time string music and bluegrass music. It really was the best spot,” said Kelley. “It has broadened up a bit now, there’s a lot more of what we would call Americana these day, but I would say probably the best thing about MerleFest is that they try to really keep things, regardless of the genre, authentic ya know? It’s real music, from real people meaning what they’re saying. There seems to be a good bit of that. I think people resonate with it, and I think specifically MerleFest and North Carolina is doing a good job at that.”
Though it was their first time playing at MerleFest, Hogslop String Band quickly became a festival favorite due to their lively old-time performances. During the course of the event the band gave numerous performances, including an energetic show in the festival’s dance tent and another on the main stage.
Even in their off time, musicians who made the trip to Wilkesboro to play the more prominent stages at MerleFest could be found bellowing out traditional tunes in jam circles in between sets. A festival with no shortage of talent, meeting a top-tier picker can be as easy as saying howdy to a stranger.
“This is a festival that’s purely for true, authentic music lovers, without a doubt. Everywhere you turn there’s just phenomenal talent and the coolest thing is that all of them are so humble and kind,” said Chalmers Croft, an Appalachian State graduate and member of the band the Bare Foot Movement. “It’s the most amazing thing to be able to sit down, unzip your bag, whip out your instrument and literally say ‘hey, my name is Chalmers, let’s play Salt Creek and everybody knows what you’re talking about. The phrase pickin’ and grinnin’ definitely comes from somewhere, you just sit down and start jamming and people all know that we’re here for the same thing —bonding over music. That’s especially important given how hard things have been this past year.”