North Carolina’s “traditional plus” MerleFest is a country music extravaganza.
It may not be a household name on the music festival circuit. Yet. But Wilkesboro, N.C.’s MerleFest may surpass any other country festival you attend this year. With an enormous lineup, special events, and (very) affordable prices, you won’t want to miss it.
The four-day festival takes place at Wilkes Community College over the last weekend in April, from the 23-26. Headliners include Dwight Yoakam, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, The Avett Brothers and Robert Earl Keen. But with a full lineup that includes over 100 acts, it’s impossible to list everyone you’re going to want to see here.
Yes, 100 acts, which they are able to squeeze in because MerleFest has 13 stages scattered across the campus. That means that you’re pretty much guaranteed that something you like is always going to be playing.
What is MerleFest, exactly?
MerleFest was started in 1988 as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College by Doc Watson to honor his deceased son, Eddy Merle Watson, and their music style. They called their musical style “traditional plus,” meaning the traditional sounds of Appalachia plus whatever the Watsons felt like playing. The fundraiser evolved into a festival that now includes the bluegrass, old-time and roots music mixed with Americana, country, blues, rock and a whole bunch of folk.
Over its short but impressive history, the festival has featured the likes of Alan Jackson, Lyle Lovett, Alison Krauss, Steve Earle, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Old Crow Medicine Show, Nickel Creek and The Doobie Brothers among many other legends.
In addition to the aforementioned headliners, this year’s event will also feature Lee Ann Womack, Trampled by Turtles, Tim O’Brien with Hot Rize, North Mississippi Allstars and Sam Bush. Again, this is only a handful of the many acts which will play.
What else is there to do?
But it’s not only the legends that you should be on the lookout for. One of the highlights of the festival is the opportunity to check out up-and-coming talent. Don’t forget that our favorite artists were all once names we didn’t know. You’re nearly guaranteed to hear a future favorite artist at MerleFest.
One of the most popular concert is the annual Hillside Album Hour, in which The Waybacks play a legendary album in its entirety. Over the years the band has played Are You Experienced? by Jimi Hendrix, Abbey Road by the Beatles, Sticky Fingers by the Rolling Stones, Before the Flood by Bob Dylan and The Band and Eat a Peach by the Allman Brothers. But The Waybacks don’t announce what album they will be playing; instead they release a series of clues on their website and fans have to guess. It’s only when the band takes the stage that fans will finally have the answer.
Another great event is the annual songwriting competition. Past winners include Tift Merritt, Gillian Welch and Adrienne Young. There’s also Jam Camp, Nature Walks, Songwriter’s Coffee House, and a mountain of other things to do.
Ticket prices for MerleFest are a fraction of what other major festivals may cost. A four-day pass is as low as $150. General admission for the various days ranges from $40 on Thursday to $60 on Saturday. On Sunday, it drops back down to $45. And yes, you can bring your camper or tent. Because what’s a music festival without camping?
MerleFest is more than a music festival. It’s a celebration of the return of spring and the return of summer music. It’s very nearly a way of life. And it’s an event you won’t want to miss.