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MerleFest in Wilkesboro (When, Where, and Everything Else You Need to Know)

Published by Carl Hedinger. Last Updated on April 9, 2024.

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MerleFest is an iconic music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Originally a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College’s Horticultural Department in 1988, the April event has grown to take over the WCC campus and the Wilkesboro area.

Named for the famous musician (and area local) Doc Watson’s son Merle, local and world-famous musicians have long flocked to MerleFest and played for attendees from North Carolina and worldwide.

We’ve had the pleasure of attending and created this guide to honor MerleFest, while also helping you enjoy it, too!

Here’s how we’ve organized this NC travel guide to the MerleFest music festival:

  • When is MerleFest?
  • Where is it held?
  • Parking Info
  • The History of MerleFest
  • Things We Love About This Music Festival
  • Important MerleFest Tips to Know Before You Go

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When is MerleFest?

Answer: The last weekend of April
2024 Event Dates: April 25-28
Buy MerleFest Tickets from the Official Website

MerleFest Music Festival

Since the first MerleFest music festival in 1988, the event has been held on the last weekend of April. This is the perfect time of year to visit Wilkesboro, with ideal spring temperatures and colorful scenery returning to the area.

Since it’s the height of spring, rain is always possible at MerleFest. In fact, everyone we know who’s been considers it normal for at least one rainstorm to pass through during the weekend MerleFest is held.

That’s why we recommend a rain jacket, poncho, good boots, and anything else you need to prepare for rain and mud.

Read More: The NC Tripping Events Calendar

Where is MerleFest Held?

Wilkes Community College Address: 1328 S Collegiate Dr, Wilkesboro, NC

MerleFest Music Festical Wilkes Community College Wilkesboro NC

As mentioned, MerleFest is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. This town is an easy day trip away from many places in North Carolina, including:

The festival takes over the campus for the weekend and weeks before it kicks off.

In addition to attending, I love visiting Wilkesboro just before MerleFest because you can feel the buzz in the air. At WCC, you’ll see volunteers and crews readying the stages, campus, and surroundings.

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Parking Options

Parking at MerleFest depends on which section you choose and is not included in the price of tickets.

This is a free shuttle service provided to and from the parking lots to the front gates. To return to your parking space, you’ll catch a shuttle from where you were dropped off.

The History of MerleFest

Merlefest Director B Townes Interview Featured Image Provided by Merlefest
Image of B Townes Provided by Merlefest.

It’s impossible to discuss the history of MerleFest without starting with the original Festival Director, Frederick B William Townes IV, who everyone in the area affectionately knows as “B.”

Before his retirement, I was lucky enough to connect with B and chat by phone about MerleFest and his part in getting it started. “The goal was to raise money for the WCC’s Horticulture Department in 1988,” Townes recalled.

B and his friend Bill Young decided on a music show to raise money. In the fall of 1987, Townes connected with Bluegrass legend and area native Doc Watson.

Things to Do in Wilkesboro Downtown Doc Watson Mural

As long as the festival honored Doc’s son Eddy Merle Watson, who went by Merle and who tragically passed in 1985, with a garden.

The first “MerleFest” was set for the fall, but Doc’s wife wisely suggested moving the fundraiser to spring, around the end of April.

Thanks to the date change, a few of Doc and Merle’s friends said they’d also come to the area and make the fundraiser a full-on music festival.

Merle Watson Garden of the Senses WIlkesboro NC

Tickets for the first MerleFest quickly sold out in the winter, signaling to B that they needed to expand. The money for the garden had already been raised, but after a successful first festival and requests for info about the next MerleFest coming in, another was put on.

Over the years, some of the biggest names have played at MerleFest, including Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, and The Avett Brothers.

While B Townes told me that he wasn’t interested in doing more than one MerleFest, he was convinced after the success of the first two to make it an annual festival.

We and many others thank him and everyone involved for continuing the tradition.

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Things We Love About MerleFest Today

Including the wonderful music on display, we think there are many reasons to love MerleFest, including the following:

A Good Cause

MerleFest Music Festival Performance at Night Wilkesboro NC

Today, proceeds from the festival benefit the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.

The economic impact of MerleFest on the community is $12-15 million, with the revenue serving 45 area nonprofits. We hope festivals throughout the world replicate this economic and educational impact.

For now, we’ll view it as yet another thing to love about MerleFest.

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A Family-Friendly Festival

MerleFest Music Festival Kid Section

Merlefest has remained a “family-friendly” festival, with no alcohol or smoking allowed. According to B, “Doc would even call folks down if he heard them cussing.”

There are plenty of kid-friendly activities at MerleFest, including:

  • Little Pickers Family Area: If the amazing music isn’t enough to keep the younger ones entertained, the Little Pickers Family Area is one of our favorite things to do at MerleFest.
  • Acoustic Kids Showcases (Register in Advance): Young pickers and singers (through age 18) of any skill level can perform.

Kids should also watch for Flattop, the music festival’s official mascot, running around the festival grounds. Not only does Flattop embody the festival, but the raccoon also represents Merle Watson’s band, Frosty Morn.

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Local Vendors

MerleFest Music Festival Wilkesboro NC Local Vendors

The Shoppes at MerleFest feature local businesses and organizations, food trucks, merch vendors, and more. Walking around and connecting with business owners and organization leaders is a great way to spend time between acts.

Luckily, the vendors will be around throughout the music festival, so you don’t have to visit them all at once. We typically like to make multiple trips because there are so many vendors that it’s easy to overlook one or two of them.

Read More: Why and How to Support Amazing Local Businesses Every Day

Outstanding Music

MerleFest Wilkesboro NC Doc and Merle Watson Theatre

Regardless of who comes through, the festival remains a tribute to Merle and Doc Watson’s musical legacies.

Over the years, some of the biggest names have played at MerleFest, including Dolly Parton, Elvis Costello, Earl Scruggs, and The Avett Brothers. Do you have any favorite artists who’ve played here?

View the MerleFest Lineup

Important Tips Before You Go

MerleFest Noise NC Tripping Photo

Now that you know why we love this festival, here are some important tips to enjoy your time:

  • Buy Tickets Early: If you miss Early Bird Pricing one year, remember that it will always be available the next year. Keeping ticket costs down can free up more funds for merch, like t-shirts and posters!
  • Bring Money for Merch: Speaking of merch, we highly recommend bringing money to buy something special to bring home! I love walking around in my MerleFest shirt, and I haven’t seen my Avett Brothers shirt from 2023 anywhere else!
  • Don’t Forget Anything: It’s a long walk (even a shuttle ride) back to your parking spot, so please make sure you have everything before entering MerleFest.
  • Know Your Parking Area: Remember which parking lot you left your car in, so you’ll know which shuttle to take back to it.
  • Don’t Lose Your Wristband: My wristband has usually been pretty tough to remove, but just in case you forget, don’t rip yours off until after the festival!
  • Prepare for Rain: We mentioned this earlier and want to reiterate that you prepare for rain. As an outdoor festival, bands will go on rain or shine and will stop if there’s a threat of lightning. Bring Boots, a rain poncho, and anything else you need to cope with rain and mud. Large umbrellas or patio umbrellas are not allowed.
  • Bring Comfy Chairs: If you didn’t buy a ticket with reserved seating, we recommend you bring comfy chairs to MerleFest. A picnic blanket will serve you well, only if there’s been no rain in the area.
  • Stay Hydrated: Bring a water bottle to stay hydrated. If the ground is wet and the sky is clear, conditions around Wilkes Community College could be muggy.
  • Ear Protection: If you’re sensitive to loud noises, bring earplugs and protective earphones. The music at MerleFest is great, but it’s also loud.
  • Sunscreen: There is some tree cover on campus but lots of uncovered areas, too. That’s why we think sunscreen is essential to bring.
  • Consider Volunteering: Since the beginning, Merlefest has depended on the strength of volunteers. If you volunteer, you get free admission on the day (or days) of your shift.
  • Follow the Rules: No alcohol or drugs are allowed at MerleFest. Wilkes Community College is also 100 percent tobacco-free, and no vaping is allowed, so keep that in mind if you’re a smoker.

Who’s Ready for MerleFest?

MerleFest is truly a special time and if you’ve never been, we highly recommend you add this music festival to your calendar.

If you’ve attended in the past, please tell us about your experience and what you loved about the festival.

Share your thoughts in the comments. Don’t forget to share your adventures from this festival and others in our NC Travel Facebook Group.

Things to Do Near MerleFest

Things to Do in Wilkesboro Stone Mountain State Park

We always tell people that MerleFest is a great introduction to the Wilkesboro area, which is worth visiting throughout the year! Here are a few things we love about Wilkesboro and its surroundings:

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More Wilkesboro NC Events and Things to Do

We’ve created several NC travel guides that cover things to do in Wilkesboro, elsewhere in Wilkes County, and beyond in North Carolina! Here are a few of them:

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