Merlefest experience from a First-timer

High level music of all types in a beautiful setting. Decent food vendors with a wide choice of items. 70,000 people make for some long food lines, crowded walkways and long bus lines to and from the camping areas. NO ALCOHOL sold or allowed at the festival site.

Opening Day Merlefest 2019

The festival is located in Wilkesboro, NC, 2 hours from Charlotte, 1 hour from Winston-Salem. RV and camping sites are NOT at the college; they are in various lots and campgrounds surrounding the college. Shuttle buses take you back and forth to and from the festival. Waiting lines for the buses can be long at times, so plan accordingly.

Lots of stages, all requiring walking.. There’s no way to see more than 20% (if that) of the artists performing. Just too many stages (12 in the schedule) and too little time…

Some stages have chairs, the main stage has reserved seats and field seating where you bring your own chairs. the reserved seating chairs are very spacious and comfortable. There are even some indoor air conditioned stages as well as some large covered tents.

I think the biggest adjustment for me is not camping at the festival. There is no camping on the festival grounds. With over 70,000 people being here across the four days I can certainly understand that but having to take a shuttle bus to the festival requires a major adjustment in the way I am used to doing things.

Saturday night, I’d estimate there were at least 30,000 people at mainstage. I had reserved seating at mainstage in row 47. Row 47 had 115 +/- seats in it!! There were people i was supposed to meet in row 47, but i never even saw them..

Friday Merlefest had just about everything you could think of weather-wise.. from hot sun to rain showers to 30mph winds to temps in the high 40’s with wind.. I had on five layers, and was still cold..

One of the more unusual things about this festival is the layout of the Watson (main) Stage and Cabin Stages. They are right next to each other. The Cabin Stage is used while the sound crew gets the Watson Stage ready for the next performance. Watson stage sets are between 45 minutes and 90 minutes each. Cabin stage performances are between 25 minutes and 40 minutes.

Getting there:
The festival takes place at Wilkes Community College at 1328 S. Collegiate Drive, Wilkesboro, N.C. 28697. Roads coming in and out are decent, with some rough spots.

A high-level mix of country, bluegrass, blues, folk, and singer-songwriters. Among the performers i enjoyed were Keb Mo, Brother Brothers, Sam Bush, The Milk Carton Kids, Radney Foster, Roy Bookbinder, Happy and Adam Traum, Andy May, and Si Kahn.

In addition, Amos Lee (Watson {main} Stege): Good songs, ok guitar work. (“I’m the worst musician that will be on the stage this weekend”). His stage presence was both laid back and hysterically laugh inducing.. he had absolutely no idea of any of the history of the festival (same for Keb Mo).. I’d been there for two days and was an expert in comparison..

Steve Poltz (Cabin Stage) was energy unleashed as he moved around the stage frenetically both during and in-between numbers. My first impression of him was “Crazy is the best way i can put it.. entertaining laughing crazy.”. One of these days, he’ll complete a few sentences in a row… But, the tidbits he threw out stood on their own..

Scythian reminded me of Limpopo (Kerrverts will know) energy-wise.. Just more Irish jig and less Russian polka!!

One performance not to miss is the Album Hour.. This year the Waybacks did Led Zeppelin IV (Stairway to Heaven)

The emotional highlight of the festival was Si Kahn’s Mother Jones in Heaven starring Vivian Nesbitt and John Dillon. A musical play based on Si Kahn’s music about class struggle, union and women’s rights in the late 1800’s into the 1900’s. You’d expect nothing less from Si Kahn, and you get so much more.. It left me in tears and with a better understanding of mother Jones. There is a CD, I’d encourage you to get it, and if you have the chance to see it, run, do not walk. Checkout to see the tour schedule for this moving musical play.

David LaMotte performed on one of the side stages. I hadn’t seen David in 10 years and it immediately felt like I was sitting at Main stage at Kerrville.
Yesterday watching Mother Jones in heaven the tears were tears of anger, activism and frustration. The tears during David’s performance were of absolute Joy. Don’t miss him if you have a chance to see him perform…

RV and Camping Information:
RV and camping sites are NOT at the college; they are in verious lots and campgrounds surrounding the college. Shuttle buses take you back and forth to and from the festival. Waiting lines for the buses can be long at times, so plan accordingly.

People make reservations way in advance, but it looks like last minute spaces aould be available at some of the less prime parks and open fields. Most sites do not have hookups.. I did see some hookups but it looked like those were sold out months before the show..

As you would expect, there are 100’s of volunteer opportunites available. Most require considerable standing and sun exposure. Volunteer applications for the 2020 festsival will open up October 1, 2019. Shifts will usually be 3 – 5 hours and you get free admission for the day of your shift. They require a $50 deposit for first time volunteers which is returned to you upon successful completion of your shift(s). Volunteers also receive a 10% discount on camping at River’s Edge.

Songwriting Contest:
4 categories: Bluegrass, Gospel/INspirational, General, Country.
3 winners in each category (1st, 2nd and 3rd place).
No instrumental songs.
You cannot be performing at the festival and be in the song contest in the same year.

Here’s one of the winners, Andrew Millsaps

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