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.

True Grit. in life & in music.

Kentucky brings out the best country musicians..Kyle Daniel is one of em’

Kyle Daniel was a newcomer on my country radar.. A product of my Spotify discover weekly. I owe the streaming service a lot over the past few years, but after discovering Kyle, I may be indebted forever.

Kentucky & country music are hot right now. The state is scattered with the birthplaces of many current country greats. Stapleton’s from Lexington, Sturgill’s from Jackson, and Kyle? Well he hails from Bowling Green. You can hear his emotion screaming through his Dr. Z amp.

After listening to his latest EP “What’s There To Say?” I could see that Kyle’s been through the ringer. “Born to Lose” invokes a story of a man who’s given up on not only those around him, but himself as well. The title track “What’s There To Say” shows a relationship in turmoil and the side effects that it brings. Reading into the life that Kyle lived in Bowling Green, it wasn’t without struggle. Stories of losing close friends to opioid addictions brought the track “Born to Lose’ to the world. This songwriting showed that Kyle is bringing a bigger issue to light. This is more than a song…more that an EP.

Artists that forge their own path in songwriting have a lot to prove. Listening to “What’s There To Say” brought me back to the first time I ever listened to “High Top Mountain” by fellow Kentuckian Sturgill Simpson. I feel these two albums share similarities, in that they talk about the hard stuff. The hard shit in life that involves real emotion and real struggle. That takes a lot of guts to do. This isn’t your typical three minute and thirty second song about (insert generic country theme here)

This music is about real life. What Kyle and other amazing artists from Kentucky do so well is they write from the heart. They don’t dance around the subject, they hit you straight in the face with it. They bring up topics that may not be Music Row friendly. The beautiful thing is that people care, and people relate.

Kyle’s live show was equally impressive. With an incredible band behind him, this was one of the tightest acts i’ve seen in a very long time. Mostly originals with a few covers in between, I really hope Kyle comes back to Charlotte soon. Whether it’s in life or on stage, Kyle Daniel proved to me that the power of a song is very much alive in country music.

Kyle fits right up there with other Kentucky greats who’ve come along to shape the future of country music.

Tony Lucca

The renaissance man residing in Nashville brings his stories to Charlotte.

Tony Lucca is indeed a man of many disciplines. From his start in acting, to finding success in songwriting, with songs being placed in major tv shows including Friday Night Lights, he has had a unique career as an entertainer so far.

Living in Los Angeles for a brief time(1995-1997) he acted full time until deciding to pursue music in 1997.

This was my first time seeing Tony live, so I was unaware of the energy he brings to his live shows, and it truly was infectious. The intimate setting of The Evening Muse brought Tony’s energy that much closer to the audience, providing a truly entertaining show. Tony has a way of inviting you into his songs, making you feel like you’ve heard them a thousand times. People can tell that the songs he writes mean something. They weigh on you and make you really believe true music. Different songs tell different times in his life such as “Empty Handed Blues”, born out of a long trip from Charlotte to Jacksonville. Tony’s songs are place marks in his life, a trait that many legendary songwriters have.

Tony with his TFDI Fest shirt. A music festival started by Tony and friends. https://www.tfdifest.com/

Apart from writing songs, Tony has ventured into organizing a music festival from scratch starting TFDI Fest(Totally Fuckin’ Doing It) with Jay Nash. “Hand selecting” different artists to perform, this festival will run in the fall(September 6th & 7th)

Other big news coming out of the workings of Tony include a new album called “Ain’t No Storm” releasing on March 29th. Super exciting news for sure!

Writing hit songs, releasing a new album, and starting a music festival sounds like a pipe dream for most musicians, but for Tony Lucca, he’s Totally Fuckin’ Doing It.

Future Thieves

It’s time to focus on one of Nashville’s celebrated rock n’ roll bands.

Future Thieves rolled into Charlotte, fresh off of releasing a new single entitled “Focus”. Weeks after selling out the Basement East in Nashville, these guys carried that same energy to Charlotte.

If there’s one thing to be said about these guys, is that they get the concept of straight forward, no frills rock and roll. I can remember about half way through the set, seeing bass player Nick Goss’ bass amp visibly rocking from side to side. That’s the energy of this band. That’s what they give you any night of the week.

Old favorites such as “Rosie” and “Horizon Line” were main staples in the set, but newer songs such as “Machines” and the newest of the bunch “Focus” really showed the creativity and versatility of the Future Thieves sound. These guys have found a really great sound that can appeal to not only rock n’ roll purists, but to fans of other pop centered genres.

Their last time in Charlotte was on October 5th, when they did a set for Sofar Sounds(a really cool music concept that you should check out). When talking about Sofar Sounds during the set, lead singer Elliot Collet was quick to praise the stripped down nature of the performance and the connection that it brings to the listener. That’s really the root of the success these guys have had so far. They love the connection between band and listener. They want to give you the best show possible, all the time, every time…and they always overdeliver.

Future Thieves has a couple remaining dates on their current tour schedule. Go support a band that thrives on real, pure music. I promise you’ll be a future fan.

Rayland Baxter

Seeing is Believing at The Visulite

Rayland Baxter isn’t black & white. Rayland Baxter isn’t one dimensional. Rayland Baxter certainly isn’t ordinary. Rayland is his own kind, a one-off, a truly magical artist that you need to see to believe.

The Nashville native(which makes him even more special) made his triumphant return to the Queen City, since his last appearance in Charlotte at The Evening Muse.

Most of the world including myself, were introduced to Rayland’s unique characteristics though one of his more popular songs “Yellow Eyes”. I still remember watching through the screen as a man in a Goodyear hat played all the right notes and hit all the right emotions.

After playing a couple of tried and true originals, Rayland’s tribute to another unique artist was one of the highlights of the night. His cover of “Come Back to Earth” by the late Mac Miller drew the crowd close. I took it as not only as as a tribute, but a gesture of respect. Later in the night, a cover by Neil Young was wildly accepted.

I believe very root of Baxters rise to prominence has to do with his carefree nature. He isn’t flashy or egotistic. He doesn’t try too hard to be “different”. He’s there for the music and the people. While other artists erect grandiose stage plots, Rayland comes out on stage amidst a tie dye backdrop, plugs in his Gibson semi hollow-body guitar, and lets the music shine.

We all came out on a Thursday night, not only to see a performance, but to believe in the magic of Baxter.

Baxter, known for his heavy touring, will be on the road through September.

Diamonds and Whiskey.

One of Charlotte’s country gems puts on one hell of a show.

A chilly night in January. Running from car to venue in order not to freeze was a requirement. Once inside, a warm welcome was made to Diamonds and Whiskey as they started their set.

With a kick of the leg on every downbeat, Von Bury(the guitar player for D&W) first caught my eye with his energetic stage presence and ferocious lead tones.

The band started out strong and loud, pairing original songs with some well known cover songs by Kings of Leon and other classic rock icons. When it was time for the energy of the set to come down, it was for good reason.

Jenny Webb(lead singer and guitar player for D&W) announced that they would play a song they had never done before live. The song entitled “hero” was about Jenny’s fight with Lyme disease.

It was honestly my favorite part of the night, showing how such a terrible ordeal can lead to such a moving song. If I didn’t know it was the first time this band had played this song live, I would have thought it had been a staple in their set for years.

After such an emotional & moving song, the band launched back into more original songs with the occasional cover song thrown in. Notably “Buy Me A Boat” by Chris Janson was a welcome surprise.

After the final song had been played, and the lights had come up, I was left with a really great feeling about this band. Their fans are loyal hard-working folks that just want to have a good time, they play no-frills in your face country-rock, and as a band they really gel well together.

I’m glad to see a band that knows how they want to sound & knows where they want to go.

Diamonds & Whiskey was on fire on a cold January night.