There was plenty of disappointment last year when MerleFest became a casualty of the pandemic. This year, the show went on. America’s premier “traditional plus” music festival returned, once again giving undiscovered acts their chance to shine.
It all started in 1988 when a Wilkes Community College horticulture professor was looking to build a sensory garden on the campus. The hardest part wasn’t the design of the garden, or what sort of plants to put into it, but how to fund it. Here’s longtime Festival Director Ted Hagaman.
“And on the board was a man that happened to know Doc Watson and he said, ‘You know I think we could call go up and see Doc and see if he’d come down and maybe do a benefit concert to raise money to build these gardens,’” Hagaman said.
Born in Deep Gap, North Carolina, Doc Watson is one of the most important figures in American traditional music. Watson agreed to play, but on two conditions. One was that the festival honor Watson’s son Merle, who’d recently been killed in an accident, and the other was that Doc could bring his friends.
“The very first festival they brought two tractor trailer flatbed trucks, put them out in the field, and created a stage,” said Hagaman. “All the artists that had promised Doc that they would come came, and these are people from the Grand Old Opry like Earl Scruggs and Grandpa Jones and Chet Atkins and just a whole plethora of great musicians. They all came for free.”
The first MerleFest was a success. 33 years later it’s grown from around 2,000 spectators to more than 80,000 over 4 days. But last year, on Friday the 13th of all days, Hagaman made the difficult decision to cancel the fest over concerns about Coronavirus.
That hit some first-time performers hard, like Haywood County-based The Maggie Valley Band.
Along with her sister Caroline, guitarist Whitney Miller fronts The Maggie Valley Band.
“Honestly, when it happened and I found out it was canceled, I, I cried,” Whitney said. “I was like, ‘I know there's bigger things happening right now with the pandemic and things going like that,’ but I was just like, ‘Yeah, wow, this, we lost this too.’”
The Maggie Valley Band spent 2020 like many other bands – not performing, but working on their sound and recording when they could. Then came the news that the 2021 MerleFest would take place, and that everyone from the 2020 fest would be invited back.
The Maggie Valley Band jumped at the chance to finally make its first appearance in the prestigious invite-only band competition.
“Yeah, we're excited because we are really are doing three of the four songs that we released in 2020,” said Whitney. “So we're, you know, playing different songs and we would have, so we're excited about that. We feel like these songs are good songs to present to people, and so we're really excited for it.”
With festival headliners like Sturgill Simpson, Melissa Etheridge, Balsam Range and Mavis Staples, Caroline Miller said they were both honored and thankful to be in the competition.
“Yeah, honestly, seeing the talent and seeing the people that we know are here, I'm just overwhelmed with being honored of my own,” said Caroline. “Anything else is just, you know, just honored to be here, thankful to be here. Not feeling out of place, but just extremely honored for sure.”
The competition consisted of eight bands, almost all of which came from within 150 miles of the festival itself. John Aaron was one of the judges.
“You get such a broad spectrum of types of bands, types of music,” Aaron said. “You don't know what to expect. I hadn't seen any of these bands. I wasn't familiar with any of these bands. Sometimes I do research. This year I chose not to.”
Western North Carolina singer/songwriter Mark Bumgarner has been the longtime MC of the competition.
“Well, I see every year it getting stronger across the board,” said Bumgarner. “We've always had strong acts, but this year it seems like they all just really brought their own element.”
In the end, the winner of the competition that launched Ashley Heath and Fireside Collective to national prominence wasn’t The Maggie Valley Band, or Asheville favorite Andrew Scotchie and the River Rats – it was Raleigh-based jamgrass group Into the Fog.
“Just want to say real quick, we as a band really hate to think of music as a competition, so it's really hard to feel like we won a trophy or something like that,” said Winston Mitchell, mandolin player. “There's some amazing bands that played and we're super fortunate to have won.”
The next festival is slated for April of 2022.