Mandolin master Sam Bush is the heartbeat of the Merlefest music festival.
The 67-year-old Kentucky native is a Merlefest staple. He’s here every year, and he isn’t one of those artists who pops in for a 45-minute set and then hits the road. Because of his immense talent and a personality that fits into any band, Bush is often asked to sit in with other groups.
Sometimes to his detriment, he usually doesn’t decline.
“Last year I kind of outdid myself playing with eight,” Bush, again a star at last week’s Merlefest, said. “I’m only doing five this year. But, you know, I sit around in the wintertime and my buddies call and ask. I say yes. Last year I played with a couple of people I hadn’t met before. But I just love to pick.”
And music lovers love to listen – to Bush and the other folk, bluegrass, country, rock, Americana, blues and “all of the above” artists who have made Merlefest, which started in 1988, one of the nation’s best – and best-attended – music festivals.
More than 70,000 spectators typically pack the festival grounds at Wilkes Community College. Artists from headliners like Brandi Carlile and the Avett Brothers to relative unknowns just beginning musical journeys populate the festival’s 14 stages, attracting fans from across the country.
The event began with tiny ambitions. Propelled by the involvement of traditional music king Doc Watson (and later named in honor of his late son, Merle), the festival has raised more than $15 million for the college and is on the wish list for artists who enjoy the relaxed camaraderie with fellow musicians.
“We wait all winter to get out here, and we see all our pals for the first time since last year,” Bush said. “It’s a homecoming. And for those of us who loved Doc and Merle and got to play with them, it’s very special for us.”
Among the stars of last week’s festival, which attracted more than 100 artists, were Wynonna Judd, Tyler Childers, Keb Mo, the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Avett Brothers and Carlile.
Some of those artists signed up for the lineup more than a year ago. The giant festival requires months of planning and the services of more than 4,000 volunteers.
Ted Hagaman, for 13 years the festival director, said Merlefest stays with the plan Doc Watson, who died in 2012, established at the beginning.
“We asked Doc to describe the music of Merlefest,” Hagaman said. “He said, ‘I’d call it traditional-plus. It’s the traditional music of the Appalachians, plus anything else I want to play.’ We use that as our map.”
It’s a big umbrella, one that has included Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Lyle Lovett, Linda Ronstadt, James Taylor and Kris Kristofferson.
Smaller stages showcase mid-range artists, and small “picking” tents invite visitors to bring guitars and banjos and join in the fun. There’s a Dance Stage for festival-goers who want to both listen and bounce.
The festival does not sell or allow alcoholic beverages, another throwback to Doc Watson, who wanted the event to be family-oriented. And that it is. Kids under six swing and sway to the music. Others sit on blankets with their families on the huge lawn in front of the festival’s main stage. There is a playground near the center of the festival grounds.
“Being alcohol-free is very unusual for an event of this size,” Hagaman said. “This is not about partying. People are here to hear the music. The artists know these people are listening. They have to be on top of their game.
“I think the audience trusts us to bring quality music and quality musicians here.”