Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Merlefest 2012 - Preview

Wilkes Community College Campus

Merlefest will be celebrating its 25th anniversary on the Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC from April 26 – 29 with a strong and varied lineup of old favorites and new finds. From opening headliner Vince Gill on Thursday evening through to closing on Sunday afternoon with Alison Krauss, Merlefest will provide a feast of music and celebration for music fans seeking to hear and see a wide variety of acoustic and Americana music. With thirteen sound stages spread out across the College campus, Merlefest offers venues from the large scale main stage dedicated to Doc & Merle Watson, the reasons for the event, to intimate indoor venues for workshops and performances where quiet and concentration can prevail. With average attendance in the range of 20,000 per day during the four days of the festival, Merlefest can be, however, a daunting place for even the most experienced attendee to manage while trying to enjoy and get the most from this exciting event. This blog entry is designed to help newcomers and old hands enjoy Merlefest to its fullest.

The Main Gate in the Morning
Planning - Because Merlefest offers so much variety, preparing for the festival requires some time spent in preparation and study. Fortunately, the Merlefest web site helps a great deal in this effort. The Merlefest schedule is provided in two forms, a web version gives a daily overview of all the stages in a single view on line. The printable schedule allows attendees to print out all six sessions on 8x11 paper to have a handy pocket version of your plans with you. A newly installed Search button on the web schedule allows you to select favorite performers and to identify all of their performances during the four days, if you prefer to follow a particular group or person. The Festival Map (found in the About Us section of the web site) also comes in web and printable versions and is invaluable. The map has installed a slider at the bottom, making learning about the grounds much easier. The (sort of) alphabetical Lineup of 2012 Performers puts the last major research tool in place, giving a complete list of performers and the days they'll be at the festival puts the last major planning tool in place. By using these four planning tools, each in conjunction with the other, you can chart where and when bands you wish to see will be and how to allow sufficient time to get from one venue to another to assure seeing your favorites or ones you've heard of but never seen before.

The Reserved Seat Section at Watson Stage

Preparing – Wilkesboro is located on the edge of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina and held in late April. You can count on some warm sunny weather, some rain, some heat, and, especially in the evenings at the main stage, some real chill. You will almost certainly have a day during which you will bask in hot sun for a part of the day and then, as the sun sets and cool air spills over the ridge surrounding the Watson Stage find yourself getting both damp and chilled. A backpack filled with a variety of clothing layers to add and shed during the day and into the evening is essential. We carry a poncho, a fleece jacket, changes of socks, a warm cap, and a pair of rain trousers to don as weather conditions change. We also have a hand folding umbrella and plenty of sun screen. To save on the cost of food, we also carry in some snacks and a few sandwiches. Any liquid you bring onto the Merlefest grounds must be sealed. Alcholic beverages are prohibited and smoking is (thankfully) increasingly restricted. Leave your booze and smokes at home!

In the Food Tent
Eating at MerlefestThe food tent, a vast area to the left of the Watson Stage, offers a wide variety of tastily prepared, well-priced, and (often) healthy food choices. From barbecue (pork and chicken) to Italian and Thai specialties, you can get full plate meals to satisfy any festival goer. However, the food tent becomes extremely crowded and lines get long during the evening supper break. Because you can sit at convenient tables from which you can hear the music and see the Jumbotron, you'll probably enjoy your meal more if you choose to eat at non-break times when the crowds there are smaller. You can also get water (you'll need plenty), soft drinks, and candy in the food tent as well as breakfast in the morning. Remember: Wilkes County is a small, rural county in the foothills. Merlefest is the single biggest opportunity for local service groups, churches, schools, and college organizations to raise funds. Support these organizations from buying food on the grounds. Other food vending locations are found around the grounds selling coffee, snacks, and, in the Little Pickers area, even funnel cakes for those who truly can't resist fair foods.

Flush Toilets
 Convenient air-conditioned flush toilet facilities as well as frequently cleaned porta-potties make certain that sufficient facilities are available for all comers. Lines at the women's doors for the flush toilets are frequently long.  


The Shops at Merlefest

Shopping at Merlefest – Four major shopping venues provide lots of shopping for Merlefest attendees. Instrument and musical gear vendors can be found at the The Expo Center, tucked in between the Watson Stage, Creekside, and the Food Tent. Major instrument manufacturers and gear purveyors have their booths there. You can demo instruments, maybe jam a little, and chat with reps there. Good prices are available throughout the festival, but often on Saturday afternoon prices begin to come down and significant savings on instruments can be realized, if your prize is still there. The Merlefest Mall, at the rear entrance to the Watson Stage, places all the artist merchandise in one convenient location including CD's, DVD's, t-shirts, and more. The Mall is a project of the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce, and a surcharge of $3.00 is added to each CD. The Shops at Merlefest offer clothing, instruments, toys, art work, and other treats at reasonable prices. Lined up along two streets, you must traverse the shops on your way into and out of the festival. Don't hurry past, and come back to browse when you have a few moments. Within the shops complex, you can find the Heritage Crafts Center, where more expensive artisan crafts can be purchased, as well as the Merlefest Gift Shop where festival gear is available. Some attendees have every t-shirt since the very beginning. For people who can't resist getting on line for a whole day, a tent with convenient computers is available here, and there's campus-wide wi-fi available.

The Expo Tent
 Where to Rest – Lots of families with children set up a kind of camp behind the reserved seat section at the Watson Stage. They use LOW tent-like structures to provide shade and a place to sleep or play for their children. The R&R tent located at the rear of the large Watson Stage area offers chairs and even cots to nap on, several masseurs are located back there, and there's plenty of shade. You can still hear the music, but it's relatively quiet and tranquil. The Walker Center, at the top of the campus, is a large, air-conditioned auditorium featuring fine music all day long. Once you get into a seat there, it's cool and quiet. Music, this year, at Walker Center is largely bluegrass. It's a good place to rest and hear great music. The Creekside Stage has a good deal of shade around the edges surrounding it while also attracting large crowds for a variety of shows. Nevertheless, you can lean back and rest in the shade there. Lobbies for many of the classroom buildings have benches in them and they're air-conditioned. There are also clean flush toilets in the classroom buildings. 

The Hillside Stage

Especially Cool Events – Merlefest is loaded with the kind of special events that cannot be found at other smaller or less creative festivals. On any given day, dozens of musicians who seldom get together at other places are on campus. Both the bookers and individual artists take advantage of this wealth of talent to put together wonderful, and sometimes unusual combinations. Here are a few fan favorites:
The Album Hour – Saturday at 4:45, Hillside Stage hosted by The Waybacks. Each year a band hosts this event in which they recreate an iconic rock album in acoustic style. It's a hot hour that fills the large bowl at Hillside to overflowing and elicits cheers heard around the campus. We've never attended, but we hear those who do love it.
Mando Mania

Mando Mania – Saturday at 3:45, Creekside Stage hosted by Tony Williamson. A musical feast for lovers of the mandolin. Six or eight mandolin players line up across the stage to play round robin, talk about their styles and instruments, and joyfully jam. This year the group includes Sam Bush, Chris Thile, Sierra Hull, Joe Walsh, and others.

Doc Watson
Doc Watson – My Friend Merle 2:15 Saturday at the Walker Center features Doc Watson and a lot of his son Merle's friends reminiscing about their days together and playing Merle's music. Spirit of Sunday at Creekside on Sunday at 10:30 features Doc with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Last year's event carried huge emotional content for all who attended as Doc testified to his faith. Doc is used more sparingly these days, but remains a huge draw, especially for those with long time connections to the festival or devotion to the man and his music. Doc Watson celebrated his 89th birthday a few weeks ago.
The Midnight Jam – Tickets to this after hours event in the Walker Center on Saturday night are extra expense. This year's Midnight Jam will be hosted by Casey Driessen.  People lucky enough to get tickets to this prime event are always excited and surprised by who shows up and the exciting music generated in these jams.

The Little Pickers Tent
The Little Pickers Tent & the Alberti Flea Circus – The Little Pickers Tent is a great place to see and hear children perform as well as professional performances for children, and their parents. The grounds surrounding this tent contain inflatable slides, a climbing wall, jugglers, clowns on stilts, and more. The Alberti Flea Circus presents a lost carnival art with charm and wit. Step back into the nineteenth century and enjoy this fine performance.

Alberti Flea Circus
The Contests – Banjo, Guitar, and the Chris Austin Song Writing contests are held all day Friday on the Austin Stage in Alumni Hall. The list of nationally known banjo players and guitar players who've won this contest is too long to list here. Song writers in four categories compete for cash awards and recognition. If you like to see famous musicians before they become famous, this is the place to be.

The Plaza Stage
The Plaza Stage - Hosted by the legendary flat picking Dobro Man Tut Taylor, this small stage in the midst of a sun-drenched plaza showcases bands in an open stage format. It also offers those with a sense of history a chance to interact with Tut, who's career goes back to his days with John Hartford and the Steam Powered Aereoplane. 

Tut Taylor

Tut with Ronnie McCoury & Jason Carter

Every regular attendee at Merlefest has a favorite event they make it a point to attend each year. If you haven't been before, be sure to drop in on a few of these as well as the more predictable performances by established and newer performers. 

Sam Bush

Tickets – There are a range of ticket options available making Merlefest attendance possible for most people. The reserved seat area in front of the Watson Stage is open to all until 5:00 PM each day with the understanding that non seat holders will immediately relinquish the seat they are occupying when the seat's owner arrives. Patron tickets are available providing amenities, including backstage access and meals, many find an attractive value and include a tax deductible amount equal to more than half the cost. Any way you slice it, Merlefest is a pretty expensive music festival. Nevertheless, compared to concert tickets for Vince Gill, Alison Krauss, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Dailey & Vincent, The Boxcars, The Punch Brothers, The Greencards, The Kruger Brothers, The Claire Lynch Band, and many more, it's a real bargain. 

Allison Krauss

Accommodations – Wilkesboro is a small town with limited hotel and motel space. Merlefest annually brings an influx of more than 20,000 people to town for four days, representing the largest attraction to the town each year. Hotels and motels for miles around are filled while prices are at season's peak for this weekend. Several campgrounds are created for this event. On Campus RV Parking with no hookups costs $450 for four days. River's Edge is a tent community that's less than a mile from campus and administered by the Wilkes County Recreation Department at a cost of $75 for the four days. Go to the Merlefest Forum for information about camping at several local sites including Wilkesboro Fire Department (SewerFest), the YMCA Family Campground, The North Wilkesboro Rotary and Fire Department Campground, and Dancin' Dave's Festival Camping, which provides full camp setups for clients who can arrive without gear and find a comfortable, hospitable setting. There are several Corps of Engineers Campgrounds around the W. Scott Kerr Reservoir just outside town. They fill up early, but are inexpensive. We stay at Fort Hamby, which is ten miles from the festival grounds, quiet and room, and costs us $10.00 per night with our geezer card.

Vince Gill

Merlefest is a great music festival! The lineup is large and varied. If, during any particular hour, you can't find a band you'd like to hear, there are many options available on the campus to keep you interested and involved. More than any other festival we attend, we've been introduced to new bands and new sounds, most of which we've liked. From time-to-time we hear a band that isn't to our taste, but that happens everywhere we go. We're sad that this will be the last Merlefest we attend, but time marches on and we're finding it a difficult event to navigate and afford. Nevertheless, buy Sunday afternoon on April 29th, it will have provided us with ten wonderful years of new music, new friends, and new experiences.

Getting to Merlefest