Sunday marked the close of the 27th edition of MerleFest, the storied “traditional plus” festival in Wilkesboro, NC. Before it ended, I sat down with a person who served as both a personal friend of Doc’s and the spark for what would become MerleFest—Frederick William Townes IV, or “B.”
Backstage at the Watson stage, a flurry of activity prepared for this year’s headliner—Merle Haggard, commonly confused as the festival’s headliner. Walking through the storied halls and past the handful of dressing rooms, hundreds of photos of past performers lined the walls, offering a veritable who’s who of figures in bluegrass, country and folk. I stepped into Doc Watson’s small dressing room, where he would hold court and humble one famous figure after another. Townes sat in Doc’s recliner, surrounded by framed photos of some of Doc’s favorite people, the famous and the not-so-famous all on equal levels and surrounded strangely by green carpet on the walls.
The interview began with the question of Doc’s direct connection to the Wilkes County Community College. When Townes started at the school as a horticulture instructor in 1973, he had the idea of installing a garden for the senses on the campus grounds. After seeing Doc and his son, Merle, perform on campus in the small Mayes Pit Auditorium a few years later, he had the idea for a one-man, one-night benefit.
Through a mutual friend, Townes contacted Watson, who lived about 30 minutes west in Deep Gap. Watson and his wife, Rosalee, agreed to the performance as long as the proposed garden was named after their son, Eddy Merle Watson, who had died two years earlier. After the original concert date stalled in the Fall of 1987, Rosalee Watson told Townes to not worry; they should make a festival out of the event and hold it in the Spring of 1988. Doc invited his friends and those of his son. After receiving ticket requests from around the world, MerleFest was born.
Following the first event, Townes worked to produce a videotape of the debut and began to circulate 5,000 copies. From there, the interest and ticket requests coming into the school peaked. Townes served as Festival Director for many years afterward. Now retired, Townes walks the festival grounds with an easygoing smile, enjoying what he helped to create.
Sunday, after approximate 76,000 people passed through the festival gates during the weekend, the Eddy Merle Watson Garden of the Senses sat blooming still.
Below are a few clips from Sunday’s performances from Mandolin Orange, Donna the Buffalo and Alan Bigsby & Grasstowne.
Mandolin Orange, “Train Song”
Donna the Buffalo, “This Mystery”
Grasstowne, “Another Town & Lonesome River Blues”