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MerleFest celebrates music from the Appalachian region and boosts the local economy


Notice: Transcripts are machine and human generated and lightly edited for accuracy. They may contain errors.

Judy Woodruff: MerleFest has been a mainstay on the music circuit since 1988. People flock to the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in North Carolina each year to celebrate the music of the Appalachian region, and, in turn, give a boost to the local economy.

Jeffrey Brown went to take a look for our arts and culture series, Canvas.

Jeffrey Brown: Music flooded in over four days and nights from multiple stages. And being grounded in traditional bluegrass, pickin' tents were busy with adults and children.

But one important difference at MerleFest, the setting in rural Wilkesboro, North Carolina, on the campus of Wilkes Community College, where Jeff Cox is president.

Jeff Cox, President, Wilkes Community College: If you look around this beautiful campus, in a lot of ways, it's the campus that MerleFest built.

Jeffrey Brown: Is that how it feels?

Jeff Cox: It really is that way. This doesn't just happen to be here. We did this. This is our festival.

Jeffrey Brown: MerleFest, in fact, began in 1988 when the college asked bluegrass and folk legend Doc Watson, who grew up nearby, to put together a small fund-raiser to help the school. It was named for Doc's son Merle, with whom he performed three years before Merle's in a tractor accident.

The original festival was held on two flatbed trucks. No one could have imagined what it would become.

Jeff Hanna, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band: It's one of the half-a-dozen greatest music festivals in America, I think, certainly for this kind of music.

Jeffrey Brown: Jeff Hanna, one of the founders of the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, first performed here in 1992. This was his fifth visit, again up on the main Watson Stage.

Jeff Hanna: Everybody that goes out on that Watson Stage, especially, I think, has a great respect for the foundational part of the festival.

Jeffrey Brown: That musical foundation stems from Doc Watson himself, the guitarist and singer blind from infancy who influenced generations of musicians, including 1960s Southern California kids like Hanna.

Jeff Hanna: I went and bought a Doc Watson album, and it was like, oh, my gosh. The clouds parted.

Jeffrey Brown: What did you hear in his music?

Jeff Hanna: He had this simplicity to it and this conversational approach that really drew me in.

But on top of that, the guy was a virtuoso and one of the greatest guitar players to ever pick up the instrument.

Jeffrey Brown: And incredibly influential.

Jeff Hanna: Oh, way, yes, yes. I mean, here at MerleFest, there's plenty of children of Doc.

Jeffrey Brown: The music itself expanded to what Watson called traditional-plus, bringing in other styles and genres beyond bluegrass. But the ties of music and community have continued and are especially important in a town in which nearly a quarter of residents live below the poverty line.

And the festival has become indispensable, raising money to scholarships, a student emergency assistance fund, and student activities, including a culinary program that often leads to jobs in the food industry. With funding from the festival, some students even study abroad.

Celena Nilo, Wilkes Community College: It changes the students' world. And once they step on that plane, and then come back, they never look at life the same.

Jeffrey Brown: Because a lot of the students are from this region.

Celena Nilo: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: They would not often have the opportunity to go to Paris.

Celena Nilo: No. A lot of them haven't even left this area. So, yes, it changes the world then. That's very good to see.

Jeffrey Brown: Scholarship aid can be even more basic for students like 19-year-old Makenzie Shumate. She says a $250 monthly stipend, free laptop and tutoring make it possible for her to attend school, especially as a single mother with a 9-month-old son.

Makenzie Shumate, College Student: They have helped me mentally. They have helped me educationally. Without them, I probably would have dropped out a long time ago.

Jeffrey Brown: You think so?

Makenzie Shumate: Yes.

Jeffrey Brown: Is that what happens with a lot of people here?

Makenzie Shumate: Yes. There's been a lot of people I know that are scared to go to college because they don't think that their family can afford it.

And with that education promise and financial aid, it makes it possible for them to go, which is amazing.

Jeffrey Brown: She will soon graduate with a two year associate's degree, and then attend East Carolina, the first in her family to make it to a four-year university.

According to president Jeff Cox, Wilkes Community College has received $18.5 million from MerleFest to date. And he says the extra funds are even more crucial now.

Jeff Cox: The impact of the pandemic has been really tough on our economy. Rural folks and folks who are kind of at the bottom end of the economic ladder were particularly hard-hit with the pandemic.

And our students are, a lot of them, in that in that category.

Jeffrey Brown: Of course, all this depends on a thriving music festival.

Person: Watson Stage welcomes the MerleFest veterans.


Jeffrey Brown: And that's meant finding the right balance of tradition and fresh sounds to continue attracting audiences.

MerleFest veterans took the stage, musicians including famed mandolinist Sam Bush and Dobro player Jerry Douglas, who've attended the festival from its beginning.

Old Crow Medicine Show even recreated a bit of street busking of the kind they did here and elsewhere more than 20 years ago. Once word went out, a large crowd gathered. The band Scythian drew special cheers to singing songs from members with Ukrainian-American roots.

This remains a largely older and white audience. And there's been an effort to diversify the musical talent and attract new audiences as well.

One rising star in Americana and roots music 41-year-old Allison Russell, fresh off three Grammy nominations. A Black woman playing the banjo, she's a proud part of a story with its own deep roots.

Allison Russell, Musician: The banjo is so much at the heart of bluegrass, and that would not exist if West Africans hadn't come here. The oldest banjo in the Americas was found in Haiti. It's part of a really beautiful story of cross-cultural pollination, I think.

And this music comes out of that. Bluegrass comes out of that.

Jeffrey Brown: But I don't know that most people know that.

Allison Russell: I think a lot of people don't.

I think it's starting to change. I have noticed a big sea change in the last couple of years of there being more awareness that this is not a single story music.

Jeffrey Brown: Russell thinks her generation of musicians is helping change the future on stage and in the audience.

Allison Russell: We are part of the trailblazing, and that it will make it easier for the ones who are coming after us. And there will be kids who see themselves in what we're doing and think, oh, I'm welcome there.

Lindsay Craven, MerleFest Artist Relations Manager: There's so many artists out there doing amazing bluegrass work, but then also younger artists who are coming in and doing bluegrass, but they're doing their twists on it.

Jeffrey Brown: Some of that work towards building the future falls to Lindsay Craven, who helps program the festival and book the performers.

She grew up and continues to live in the region and knows the festival's value beyond the music.

Lindsay Craven: I think that artistic anything in a small community is key to keeping these smaller communities alive. I think that MerleFest means the world to Wilkesboro. I hope that it does, because we put a small community on the map.

Jeffrey Brown: By weekend's end, some 60,000 people had enjoyed it all.

For the "PBS NewsHour," I'm Jeffrey Brown at MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Judy Woodruff: And it is definitely putting them on the map.

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