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.

Makers of MerleFest (Part 2)

Your favorite MerleFest artists..brought to you by Lindsay Craven.

Every year, multiple artists are contacted to play a show during the 4 days in April that is MerleFest. They must navigate process of scheduling, booking, and logistics. Fortunately, they have an ally. A veteran of MerleFest.

Enter Lindsay Craven, A dedicated entertainment professional with 11 years in Artist Relations under her belt. She’s helped numerous artists navigate the hectic landscape of MerleFest, but she’ll tell you that working with James Taylor was one of the more memorable ones.


Lindsay got her start early in her college career as an intern. “My internship was for marketing originally and then I worked the spring leading up to the festival in 2007. And then during the festival I ended up in artist relations.”  She would eventually take on other impressive roles outside of the festival.

Yadkin Cultural Arts Center was a place Lindsay would frequent in the coming years. She would work as an administrative assistant for a year, then take on the role as House & Theatre manager for Willingham Theatre, the residential theatre of the arts center. Through all of this, she was still working hard at MerleFest every year, proving her commitment to this great festival. Soon, bigger things would come, as she would be promoted to Assistant Director for Yadkin Arts Council, then Executive Director of Yadkin Arts Council. An impressive couple years for Lindsay. After working MerleFest for over 10 years, she would take on her current role as MerleFest Artist Relations Manager. When asked if all of her previous roles prepared her for the new role at MerleFest she said “ I wore a lot of hats while I was there. So I think it helped in being prepared to juggle all the things that go along with artist relations”


Just like festival director Ted Hagaman, Lindsay has been around MerleFest for over a decade. She has seen the changes and impact the festival has had on Wilkesboro. “It really put us on the map”. Ted and Lindsay knows the impact of MerleFest to the surrounding community. Part 1 of Makers of MerleFest described this impact in greater detail.


With over 10 years of experience working in MerleFest, Lindsay Craven does have some cherished moments. Working with James Taylor was a special time in 2017. But it was the performance of The Avett Brothers in 2013. It had been raining all day that Sunday, and turnout for the Avett Brothers performance was looking bleak. Looking out over the Watson stage, the crowd hadn’t left. Lindsay remembers the energy of the crowd saying “the energy of that crowd was amazing. the audience loved it”. Crowds are attentive at MerleFest, rain or shine.

Lindsay Craven, along with Ted Hagaman, are just two of the many Makers of Merlefest. Their love for the festival is enduring, the passion they have for the people is infectious, and the desire to put on the best possible festival is paramount. There are many more people working behind the scenes, people that share the same passion that Ted and Lindsay share. If I could write articles about all of them I would. Such a special group of people sharing a common goal:

To continue the legacy and traditions of MerleFest for those four days in April.

Stay tuned for coverage of MerleFest by Around The Country as we take a look at the People of MerleFest.

Makers Of MerleFest (Part 1)

Over a decade of being the festival director for MerleFest, Ted Hagaman is as genuine as they come.

Four days in April is all it takes for the quaint campus of Wilkes Community College to be transformed into a cultural hub for country and Americana music. Ted Hagaman knows that. Since 2005, he’s directed one of the biggest roots based festivals in the country.

A short lived retirement

Ted Hagaman retired from a career in marketing services and corporate events at Lowe’s in the year of 1999. Following a successful renovation project of the Walker Center(WCC’s on campus theatre), he was approached about taking an available director position at the theatre. Ted took this opportunity with an enthusiastic “why not?”

Because Wilkes Community College is so intertwined with the workings of MerleFest, the new theatre director role came with a few strings attached. “When I was hired they told me ‘well you will have to work MerleFest’. I had never been before”. Ted was ushered into the role of directing all hospitality operations at the festival. After a few years of hospitality service, 2005 would be a monumental year for Ted. “At this time the current festival director was retiring, and he asked if I’d be interested in the festival director role, and I certainly was”. Coming into his 13th year directing MerleFest, Ted has solidified himself as an ambassador of the festival.

“A big shot in the arm for this community”

Ted will be the first to tell you how this festival impacts Wilkes Community College and the town nestled around its campus. Since its inception 31 years ago, MerleFest has contributed over 14 million dollars to the college. This chunk of change has come in handy more times than not. More than a decade ago, the aftermath of the financial crisis was felt in America. State budgets were cut, jobs were lost, and an aurora of uncertainty swept over state funded small town colleges. Ted explains “In 2008 and 2009 when the economy went south, all of a sudden the state budgets got cut, and you know for a lot of colleges like ours it was a situation of what are we going to cut out to survive. MerleFest allowed our college to continue to make improvements and provide scholarships and capital projects and things like that. So it’s really made a huge difference.” MerleFest has been a steady fundraising event for the college every year, and puts WCC in a position that most other small town community colleges dream about.

Last year alone MerleFest contributed about twelve million dollars..over six million to Wilkes county alone.

Still, this festival reaches further than the classroom. With Wilkesboro and Wilkes county a buzz come late April, one could say it’s brought this tiny town some recognition and validity. “Last year alone MerleFest contributed about twelve million dollars..over six million to Wilkes county alone.” Festival attendance is growing every year, as more people make the pilgrimage to Wilkesboro. Some people would say it’s good business, but Ted just calls it “a big shot in the arm for this community”.

A listening crowd

A typical festival would include riled up crowds full of a sponsored alcoholic beverage and inebriated patrons at every corner. Don’t expect to get an overpriced domestic beer, because according to Ted “MerleFest is an alcohol and tobacco free festival”.

You’d think “how does this festival make up for exiling alcohol, a massive money maker for other festivals?”. You’d naturally bring extra money for parking and transportation, thinking of the exorbitant prices that are sure to come. No need to worry. Free parking and transportation are included. Ted also pointed out that “you’ll get a free 20 page program that will give you all the information you need, with a map and bios on the performers and a lot of information about the history of the festival.”

This festival puts truly puts its people over profit.

With all of these variables comes a type of crowd. A listening crowd. Ask Ted about the crowds at MerleFest, and he’ll tell you that they hold expectations. Ears waiting for every note. People come to MerleFest to get lost in the songs, the performances, and the stories. This is something that MerleFest prides itself on. A festival for all ages and backgrounds.

Memories of a MerleFest trailblazer & the future to come.

A final question was asked on any memories that stood out over the years. Ted brought up the last performance of Doc Watson before his passing.

For those not versed in the history of MerleFest, Doc Watson was the founder of the festival, naming the festival after his son Merle, who tragically passed away. 2012 was his final appearance at the festival. It was a fitting ending to a man who loved people and music. Ted explains:

“20 days after the festival was over for the year, he passed. We knew Doc was not well, but we did not realize it was to that point. He did a gospel set on that Sunday morning, the last day of the festival. It was really special because I think people in the audience knew that he was probably on borrowed time. He was, and it turned out to be the very last performance he ever did. I’ll always remember that. That was special.”

Through all the years, Ted holds this memory closest.

If there’s one thing that strikes me about Ted Hagaman and MerleFest, it’s authenticity. Talking with Ted, it’s evident that he truly cares about every single person who walks through the gate. He wants to get it right year after year, and he takes pride in continuing the legacy that Doc Watson started. MerleFest is purposely about the people and the stories they share through song. MerleFest isn’t about fitting in or subscribing to the norm, but when it comes to who’s running this great festival, I’d say Ted Hagaman is the perfect fit.

For Ted, he recognizes that he can’t run a festival solo. He needs hardworking staff that care about the festival just as much as he does. Next week is part 2 of The Makers Of MerleFest as we feature another maker of MerleFest, Lindsay Craven. Lindsay works as the Artist Relations manager for the festival and just like Ted, she cares deeply about preserving the authenticity of MerleFest.