Around 3 p.m., with a bit of rain spitting from a gray sky, Bryan Sutton, David Holt and T. Michael Coleman took their seats on the Watson Stage, instruments in hand, and kicked off the 30th MerleFest, with “Way Downtown,” a Doc Watson classic.
Dressed in rain boots and warm jackets — one man wore waders — people settled in for a long night of music, highlighted by a headlining performance from North Carolina’s native sons, the Avett Brothers.
The festival has mushroomed from a grieving father’s tribute concert to his departed son into a four-day happening that draws thousands of people from around the world, many of whom stay for the whole thing, getting little sleep while passing the late-night hours singing “I Saw the Light” and “Will the Circle Be Unbroken?” in surrounding campgrounds.
The circle always seems intact at MerleFest, a booze-free festival that exudes a family-friendly vibe, where camouflage and tie dye groove side by side.
Judi and Darrell Yarborough of Huntersville are diehards, arriving early Wednesday afternoon to set up their tent at a sprawling campground run by the Wilkesboro Fire Department. The campground is on the site of the town’s wastewater treatment plant, prompting longtime campers to call it Sewerfest.
The Yarboroughs pitch their tent each year at the same spot, and once the festival closes for the night, they head back to their campsite and light a bonfire with some of their neighbors and play and listen to music all night.
“I had to buy earplugs,” Judi said.
MerleFest is like Christmas for Darrell. He gets giddy reading the lists of musicians who will play on 13 stages throughout the four days.
“You tell people about it and they think banjos, violins, mandolins and stand-up basses,” Darrell said. “But I tell people about who I’ve seen here, like Elvis Costello. And they’re like, ‘Really?’ On these stages, you have the chance to hear the finest musicians in these beautiful settings.”
Set in the foothills of the Brushy Mountains, the air thick with the sound of banjos and fiddles, the festival has always felt like home to Seth Avett of the Avett Brothers, the Grammy-winning band from Concord. He came to his first MerleFest when he was 15, the year after meeting Doc Watson, a big influence.
“It felt very welcoming. It felt like North Carolina,” he said. “The beautiful thing about is that it doesn’t feel that much different than it did then.”
Bob Crawford, the bass player for the band, first came to MerleFest from New Jersey in 1994.
“I had never experienced anything like it in my life. It was revelatory. It changed my life forever, and after I graduated from college, I moved down here because I thought every day in North Carolina was like MerleFest,” he said.