A Festival for All

How two days up in Wilkesboro changed my life.

Two days was all it took to be hooked. This was ATC’s first time on the Wilkes Community College grounds for a festival that had so much admiration. Arriving on campus was a surreal site. Stepping off the local boy scout chartered school bus Friday afternoon, the festival was already in full swing. MerleFest had my full attention.


The first day was overwhelming. Getting a booklet from a volunteer, I was quick to find a bench to sit and and get my bearings. With the festival being on a college campus, the grounds were easy to navigate and mostly flat. The Watson stage loomed in the distance as I made the trek to see it. I feel the Watson Stage acted as a centerpiece to the whole festival, a sort of central gathering place. As a first timer of MerleFest, the magnitude of this festival was a sight to see.


7pm. “Supper Break” had commenced, a sort of 45 minute dinner break between sets at the Watson Stage. Festival goers were making their way around the huge food tent that MerleFest had provided. A lot of food being made and sold in the tent came from different non-profit groups and even the local Boy Scout organization. Money given in the food tent directly impacted the community in a huge way, a kind of overall theme of MerleFest. After getting a hotdog the Elvis hotdog man(yes like Elvis Presley),

The Elvis Hot Dog Guy…

people started making their way to the Watson stage directly across from the food tent. It was time for Tyler Childers. Tyler Childers isn’t just any country pickin’ songwriter, he hails from Lawrence County, Kentucky. The state has been infamous over the past couple years of producing some of the best country talent and Tyler really fits that bill. His incredible storytelling compels the listener to really appreciate all the imagery and imagination that Tyler brings into his songs.

All that to say that a bunch of people turned out to hear Tyler sing. And boy did he sing.

One of the coolest aspects of Tylers show was the inclusion of two drummers. It was incredible to watch how both of them could keep in time with each other, sharing fills for the duration of the set. Playing covers such as “Long Long Time To Get Old” really reinforced the notion that Tyler cares and wants to preserve his roots. He won’t ever let you forget about where he came from. After the last note had rung out on that chilly Friday night, it felt like all 10,000 plus people in attendance became closer. As the last bus from the local Boy Scout troop pulled away, everyone was ready for what was in store Saturday.


Thousands of people each year attend MerleFest. A lot of the people I talked to had been coming for years. The first lady I was fortunate enough to run into had a lap steel guitar on. Intriguing my interest, I asked her what she was doing with a lap steel guitar in the middle of a balmy Saturday afternoon. With a cheerful reply she said “Well I’m in line for the jam tent sir!”. I asked her how long she had been playing for.. “over 20 years!” she exclaimed. MerleFest has always had what I like to call a  BYOI(Bring Your Own Instrument) policy that lets anyone and everyone bring an instrument to jam on. Whether you’ve been playing for a week or 20 years, the JamTent at MerleFest doesn’t discriminate. That’s special to a festival who brings in Grammy winning acts almost every year. I think I’ll bring my old Guild guitar next year.

MerleFest may be centered around music, but it also welcomes a different kind of art as well. Crafting. Entering the crafting tent, the overwhelming amount of human creation astounded me. Pottery to necklaces, everything a DIY’er could ever ask for was in this tent. One particular booth caught my attention. Avery Knifeworks is run by Raleigh Avery, a knifemaker out of Morganton, North Carolina. Raleigh makes every single knife by hand, carefully crafting a molten piece of steel into a functional piece of art. Like a musician, an artisan must practice his craft diligently. Since 2015, Raleigh’s been producing knives for not only people in the US, but people in other countries as well. A true maker in all sense of the word, I will surely be purchasing a knife from Raleigh in the near future.  

Beyond crafting, I ran into a man who is all about organics. So much so, that him and his wife make all kinds of organic products, ranging from Blackberry Apple Jelly, to appetizing soup mixes. Keith Finger insisted that his wife Kim usually does all of the product development and R&D. Mountain Momma Organics operates out of Ritchie County, West Virginia, on their farm named Almost Heaven Farms. 100 acres became a playground for organic food and product development, as Keith and Kim have been producing products since 2011. Keith was eager to tell me the process of how things were made. For someone to be so transparent about their products means the world. It truly means they care. Thank you Keith for showing me around your booth, the cranberry apple granola bar was great!


MerleFest 2019 incorporated a great number of acts from North Carolina( over 35+). Acts ranging from morning performers to The Avett Brothers, who headlined on the Watson Stage the last day of the festival.

Once again, a certain band caught my eye(or should I say ear). Ellis Dyson and the Shambles are a gypsy jazz band out of Chapel Hill, North Carolina.

Ellis Dyson

I first heard them stepping off the bus on the second day. The dance tent was conveniently located next to the entrance, and after getting checked in, I very quickly walked over to the tent. I had to see what band was playing such amazing “jazzy” tunes. And then there they were. As Ellis Dyson entertained the crowd in between songs with some witty comments, I know this band from Chapel Hill was special. Soon after their set was over, I was informed that they were going to be playing a second set later in the afternoon on another stage. Count on me being there. Once again, they played an incredible set filled with humor and wit. Please check them out if they come to your town or as Ellis put it “Watch out when we come to your town!”


“We were a daytime band, you know, the band that plays before the headliner”

Brandi Carlile wasn’t a stranger on my radar. Judging from how many people showed up Saturday night, I’d say she was on everyone’s radar as well. Brandi is sort of a national treasure in the folk/americana scene. Brandi has amassed numerous Grammys while also standing her ground on topics related to LGBT. A true artist in the purest form, Brandi showed poise and grace as she stepped on the Watson stage Saturday night. During her set she brought back the memory of 2016 when she last played MerleFest. “We were a daytime band, you know, the band that plays before the headliner”. A crowd as far as the eye could see accompanied Brandi as she blazed through her 14 song set. During the final songs of the set, Brandi would bring out Scott and Seth Avett from the Avett brothers. After playing through “Murder in the City” (an Avett Brothers original) and “Hold Out Your Hands”, Brandi thanked the crowd and left the stage gracefully into the night. A fitting ending to a magical Saturday at MerleFest.


As the Boy Scout Troop 109 bus dropped us off at parking lot A after Brandi’s set, a sort of contentment was in the air. A feeling that 4 days in late April would now be dedicated to a festival up in Wilkesboro. A festival that was one of the best experiences of my life so far.

None of this would have been possible without the amazing team at IVPR. Thank you for allowing Around The Country to cover this amazing festival.

2 days in April was all it took for a tradition to begin for the rest of my life.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *