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.

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