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MerleFest Reflections 1988


Mark O’Connor, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Tony Rice, Béla Fleck & Jerry Douglas perform in 1988.

David Holt playing rhythm on a paper bag; John Hartford tap dancing on his amplified step-atune; Chet Atkins explaining his picking technique; Tony Rice and Peter Rowan jamming with Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, John Cowan and Jerry Douglas; all the artists singing “Tribute to Merle” with Doc on harmonica—Music, Moments and Memories of the first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival.

It began in 1988 as a one-time Wilkes Community College Endowment Corporation event to raise funds for a campus garden for a rural North Carolina community college. A fine group of musicians donated their talents to memorialize a fallen friend and support his musician father. By 2011 the festival attracted nearly 80,000 participants over four days to hear 90 musical acts on 14 stages. How did MerleFest begin and how did it evolve into the greatest annual celebration of “traditional plus” music in the world and a fundraiser that has an economic impact of more than $10 million to the region?

Festival goers listen to music at the first festival.

MerleFest is the result of a serendipitous combination of individuals with vision, talent and perseverance. First among them is Frederick William Townes IV, nicknamed “B.” In the ‘70s and ‘80s, “B” was a Wilkes Community College (WCC) horticulture instructor with a grand vision to develop the grounds of the two-year public institution. The campus was a blank slate of acres of lawn and a few trees, so “B” wanted to develop theme gardens to enhance the education of his students with hands-on planting that would create a variety of landscapes for them to study. He developed “The Garden Master Plan,” which included a walking trail and a wildflower walk, a Japanese garden, an evergreen garden and a garden for the blind, which would emphasize aromatic plants and feature Braille identification signs. The college budget was tight, so “B” took full advantage of a chance to present his fundraising plan at a WCC trustees’ meeting. “B”’s talk resulted in enthusiasm, publicity, several donations and the creation of the WCC Gardens Board. A 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. In October 1987 Ala Sue, Bill and “B” met with Doc who generously agreed to do the concert in the John A. Walker Community Center (now referred to as the Walker Center) and had a November date available for the event. “B” admits freely to his naivety when he told Doc, “Great!” At this meeting Doc asked that the garden for the blind be named in honor of his late son Merle, and so it became the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses.

The 1988 audience awaits anxiously in front of the stage.

Back at the college, Bud Mayes, manager of the Walker Center, and President David Daniel informed “B” that a concert in November was totally unrealistic. Other concerts at the venue were planned a year ahead and did not fill the 1,100 seats. Bill and “B” had to meet with Doc again to tell him that the November concert could not happen. A few days later Doc called to say that his daughter, Nancy, and his wife, RosaLee, came up with the idea of Doc and some of his and Merle’s musician friends playing a festival at the end of April 1988. While touring, Doc would call Bill Young and tell him about various artists, including Chet Atkins, Earl Scruggs, Grandpa Jones, Mac Wiseman and Sam Bush, who had committed to playing in memory of Merle for free. Bill wrote these names down on a napkin and handed them to “B.” “B,” a novice at festival planning, was starting to feel a little overwhelmed. Bill suggested another meeting with Doc and RosaLee to work out details. At this meeting, since so many artists wanted to play, it was decided to make the one-night concert into a two-day festival and to name it the Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Festival. With Bud Mayes’ blessing, the event was put on the calendar for Saturday and Sunday, April 30 and May 1, with all proceeds going to the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses.

John Hartford tips his hat

As Doc promoted this event during his concert tour, one gentleman heard about it and wanted to become personally involved in helping to make it happen. Jim Rouse gave his name to Doc on a slip of paper, which Doc put in his pocket. As RosaLee was doing laundry one day, she came upon this slip of paper and called “B” to recommend that he give Jim a call to see how he could help. When “B” called Jim, Jim asked, “What is it that I can do to help you?” “B” explained that he really needed a monument to place at the Garden for the Senses recognizing that it was established in memory of Merle. Jim gladly made plans to get this monument in place. From that point forward, Jim has been involved in promoting the festival. He has also become a valued and trusted personal friend to Doc.

RosaLee suggested having a workshop as well where artists could talk about their instruments and share ideas about their musical styles. This added a second venue to the festival; the workshop would be held in the Pit, now known as the Mayes Pit-Cohn Auditorium. At this point “B” admitted that he was not musically inclined and asked Doc, “What is a festival?” and “What kind of music do you play?” Needless to say, “B” was on a steep learning curve.

Bill Mathis & Doc Watson sing “A Song for Merle”

One night “B” woke up in a bit of a panic as he realized he could not be sure who would actually show up to perform. He had yet to talk to any artists or plan who would play when. So, he and Bill went back up the mountain to see Doc to work out some of these “details.” Doc gave them phone numbers for a few artists and, luckily, agent Keith Case. “B” called Keith and left messages but received no reply. “B” was persistent and eventually caught up with Keith who said, “I heard Doc was going to have a little festival for Merle. I book a lot of these people, and I’m not sure they have that date open.” – “B”’s nightmare! But the nightmare quickly faded as Keith became a valued colleague in the artist booking process. In the meantime, Doc was talking up the festival at his concerts, so the Walker Center box office was getting many calls from all over the country for tickets, and the house sold out.

Now that they had artists, “B” asked Bud Mayes about the sound system. Bud told him that the Walker Center did not have a sound system, and it was too late to rent one. Back to Doc, who said his friend Cliff Miller, who used to play with him and Merle, would take care of the sound. Cliff had played with Doc and Merle and was in the sound system business. Sure enough, when “B” called, Cliff said he would do anything for Doc. When Cliff visited the campus, “B” told him that the house was sold out. Cliff suggested that they have the festival outside to accommodate more folks to which “B” replied, “What do you mean, have it outside??!!”

Grandpa Jones performing in 1988

Cliff said, “Well, let’s look around the campus.” They came to the area in front of what is now the Watson Stage, and Cliff said, “You could have it in that field, have it inside and outside.”

When “B” proposed the inside/outside idea to Bud and President Daniel, he recalls them saying, “Are you crazy? You have sold out the Walker Center. You need to cut and run.” “B” persisted and with the backing of Bill and Doc, he went back to Bud and President Daniel, who eventually conceded that it was his show and okayed the outside venue idea.

So at this point, the event had evolved from a one-man, one-night show to a three-venue, multiple-artist, two-day festival, which led to another problem—how to schedule all of the artists who were going to show up for the festival. Almost none of them were in band configurations. Doc had said that his old friend Ralph Rinzler would help with the schedule. Ralph was a successful folk musician and music producer who had “discovered” Doc by getting him to the Newport Folk Festival in the ‘60s. At this time he was the curator of the Smithsonian Folkways Museum and happened to be working in France, which is why he did not immediately return “B”’s calls. Finally, the weekend before the festival “B” got a call at home from Ralph, who said, “I know Doc wants me to speak or do something at a memorial for Merle. Do you know anything about it?”

Mark O’Conner the Smith Sisters perform

“B” responded, “Doc told me that you would schedule the musicians and tell them when and with whom they will play.”

Ralph said, “Okay. I am flying into Greensboro on Wednesday. Can someone pick me up?”

Of course, “B” picked him up, and Ralph worked with college staff to develop a schedule for who would play with whom, when, where and for how long.

Another big help showed up the last week as well. Jim Matthews was a carpenter from Elkin, N.C., who had worked on festivals in California. He walked into “B”’s office two days before the festival and declared, “You need my help!” So “B” showed him the venues. When they got to the field, Jim asked, “Where are they going to play?”

“B” said, “Somewhere out in the field.”

Jim said, “You need a stage!”

As a result, Ralph Williams, a supporter of the college, helped “B” arrange to have two flatbed trailers delivered and placed side by side in front of the cabin. The 200-year-old log cabin was donated to the college by Joe and Lillie Brewer and placed in the field as part of the Garden Master Plan. Jim and several volunteers spent an all-nighter with hammers in hand turning the flatbeds into a serviceable stage. The audience sat on hay bales and their own folding chairs. The informal ambience was exemplified by a dog chewing on a bone in the front row. David Holt emceed and played on the outside stage while George Hamilton IV took care of the Walker Center introductions. The concert was going extremely well until Sunday afternoon when New Grass Revival with Sam Bush, John Cowan, Pat Flynn and Béla Fleck rolled in just an hour before they were scheduled to go on stage. They were supposed to be the last group to perform in the Walker Center and then play the last set outside. “B” explained the schedule to their road manager who said they needed an hour just to set up and would only appear on the outdoor set. “B” went backstage at the Walker Center to tell George Hamilton IV the news, and he responded, “Well, “B,” you are just going to have to go out there and tell those folks that if they want to see New Grass Revival, they will need to get out of their comfortable, reserved seats and walk on down the hill to the outside stage.” With much trepidation “B” did just that and was relieved when everyone followed him down to the other venue to enjoy what turned out to be a legendary performance. One of the great traditions of MerleFest, “Tribute to Merle,” began as the finale of the first festival when all the artists gathered on stage to sing “A Song for Merle.” Shortly after Merle’s death, Wayne Hayes, a great friend of the Watsons, dealt with the pain he felt by composing the touching tribute. Wayne and Doc led the singing in 1988 to the familiar tune of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” and guests are invited to join each year in singing the following for Merle:

Bill Young, Doc Watson & George Hamilton IV

A Song for Merle

He learned to pick the guitar
while his dad was on the road.
Doc Watson was a model for his son.
When Doc sat center stage and sang,
his son Merle picked out lead.

But now we don’t have Merle to pick
around with anymore.
From the Blue Ridge Mountains of Carolina
to California by the sea,
Doc and Merle made bluegrass a way of life.
They never forgot their roots, nor from
where their music came.
Now Merle’s up in heaven, we’ll be singing once again.

Will the circle be unbroken,
Bye and bye, Lord, bye and bye.
When God’s heavenly choir sings,
He’ll have Merle pickin’ the lead
In the sky, Lord, in the sky.

Yes, Merle will be missed by his loved
ones left on earth.
His Gallagher guitar once touched us all.
His daddy is his daddy, but most of all his friend,
And someday we’ll have Merle to pick around with once again.
Yes, Merle’s gone to heaven to pick flat-top for his Lord.
He’ll play for Him “Treasure’s Untold.”
He’ll be missed by bluegrass fans, just like you and me,
His daddy, but most of all his momma, RosaLee.

Repeat chorus

Jerry Douglas signing the guitar made by Ralph Williams

Also, at the end of the first festival during the dedication of the garden, Bill Young spoke these words: “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 . . .”

The 1988 festival was a great success that raised money to add planters, walkways and other improvements to the Eddy Merle Watson Garden for the Senses. It was planned as a one-time event, but again “B”’s perseverance resulted in the festival we know today. Mule Ferguson, a local businessman and amateur musician, owned a video recording business, and he filmed the outside concert and the workshop in the Pit. WFMX radio recorded the audio. Mule encouraged “B” to sync the audio and video and try to sell VHS tapes of the concert to raise more funds for the garden. “B” and Mule spent evenings syncing the audio and video and then presented the idea of marketing the recording to Bill Young. Bill thought it was a good idea, but all the artists would have to give their permission. This was a daunting task that “B” worked hard on by making repeated calls to artists and agents.

In the meantime, there was a groundswell of enthusiasm for a second festival as evidenced by many calls to the Walker Center. Once again, Bill and “B” met with Doc and asked him about another festival. Doc agreed that it was a good idea, but this time he felt that the artists would need to be compensated in some way. Also at this meeting, they decided to have a small concert in the fall of 1988 to unveil the recording of the 1988 festival. This concert was called “Autumn Pickin’ in the Gardens” and featured Doc and a few friends playing on the cabin porch. Ultimately, 5,000 tapes were sold worldwide, which created great publicity for the 1989 festival.