Merle Watson, Doc and MerleFest
One of the most memorable musical festivals I have ever attended was in April of 2007 when my brother Ken, sister Donna, our mother and myself, headed for Wilkesboro, North Carolina to see one of the “greatest shows on earth”; MerleFest. Merle has passed on and we learned how and why his father, Doc Watson, started MerleFest in his honor.
We rented a car once we got to NC and learned a little more about Merle’s father, the famed, Doc Watson from the rental agent. It turns out, he is a neighbor of Doc and Doc’s wife, Rosa Lee. He shared many heartwarming, as well as funny stories about Doc. On the way to camp,Ken and I stopped at a Wal Mart and ran into Doc Watson in the store. We were too “star struck” to talk to him. It was one of those “Kodak Moments” with neither Ken nor I having our cameras with.
Although this is about Merle and how MerleFest came to be, I will introduce Doc now. He is reputed to be the best flat pick guitarist in the country. He is 87 years old and still pitches a song as crystal clear as he did when he first started. He was rendered blind at a very young age and considers his blindness a mere inconvenience. He married Rosa Lee in 1947 and they had a son, Eddy Merle Watson, in February 1949. In 1964, Merle started traveling with his dad and from that point on, Doc and Merle were two of the most popular performers on the folk and traditional music circuit. Doc and Merle continued to perform and record successfully during the early 80’s, giving numerous concerts and earning many awards.
Merle was every bit as talented and gifted as his dad, maybe more in some areas, but his life ended early in a tractor accident in 1985 that left Doc, friends, and the music world in shock and deep grief.
It appeared he had been having a restless night and could not sleep so he decided to work on his hobby; wood working. He injured himself pretty badly so in the early hours of the morning, he hopped on his tractor to seek aid from his neighbors.. The best they could do was clean the wound and advise him to seek medical help. Knowone really knows for sure exactly how it happened but he rolled the tractor , killing him instantly.
Doc , in his grief, nearly quit the music business altogether, but he received a spiritual message advising him not to. Also he recalled a conversation he had recently had with his son, in which Merle had revealed his relationship with his Maker and he was comforted by that.
This is a short version of how MerleFest got its name and start. It is an annual event held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina at Wilkes Community College at the end of every April. It was founded in 1988 and attracts more then 85,000 people, making it the largest folk music festival in the United States The proceeds are funneled back into the community. This is approx. $14 million dollars a year with Wilkes Community College getting $7,300,000 so far.
The festival pulls in musicians like Alison Krauss and Union Station, Earl Scruggs, the great Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Tony Rice, Ricky Skaggs, Del McCoury, Marty Steward and Sam Bush, just to name a few.
I sometimes wonder why things happen the way they do, I just know they do. I also know I will go back to MerleFest someday. Not just because it is the “greatest show on earth”, but for the story that calls me there.
Click below for details on MerleFest