MerleFest Band Competition finalists psyched to compete this year

For the past 35 years, MerleFest has become known as one of the foremost music festivals in the southeast, and, one would daresay, in the entire world. Sponsored by Window World and founded in 1988 as a fundraiser for the Garden of the Senses at Wilkes Community College, it honors world-renowned flatpicker Doc Watson’s late son, Eddy Merle Watson. Billed as a celebration of “traditional plus” music, its twelve stages offer a specific mix of traditional, roots-oriented sounds birthed in Appalachia, a timeless template that encompasses old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk, gospel, and blues, all part of an overall umbrella authentic Americana. It’s a diverse mix. One that also serves as the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.

In addition, the festival’s mission includes a commitment to spotlighting emerging talent and supporting artists of all backgrounds and levels of experience. This year, as in the past, the festival will provide a number of promising new artists with the opportunity to showcase their talents during the MerleFest Band Competition, while performing alongside their peers during Saturday’s festivities. Of the eight finalists competing, one winner will earn the opportunity to perform in front of thousands of festival goers.

“Our band competition provides a fantastic opportunity for up-and-coming bands across the country to put their talents on display at one of the most prestigious and respected roots festivals in the world,” said Lindsay Craven, MerleFest Artist Relations Manager. “Our talent continues to grow every year, and the response from bands vying for a chance to be part of the contest is a testament to the contest’s importance.””

The band competition will take place Saturday from 11:30 a.m. to 4:00 p.m., and the winner will be announced on Saturday at 4:30 p.m. The winning band will perform on Sunday, April 28 at the Hillside Stage at 11:00 a.m. This year’s Band Competition will include:

“I first became aware of the band competition when my buddy Shay Martin Lovette won a few years ago, and I knew then that it had to be legit,” Clinton Roberts, singer, songwriter, and guitarist for Holler Choir, commented. “We can’t wait to perform with this line up of very deserving bands.”

Craven went on to say that past contest winners such as Fireside Collective, The Trailblazers, Ashley Heath & Her Heathens, Shay Martin Lovette, Into the Fog, The Burnett Sisters Band, and Ashes & Arrows continue to tour consistently, and have made impressive growth over the years while sharing stages with any number of headlining acts.

“Into the Fog and Ashes & Arrows are even returning as part of the MerleFest lineup this year,” Craven said. 

“Being asked to take part in the 2023 MerleFest band competition was an exciting surprise and pleasure for us as a new band,” said Jonathan Calhoun, a principal player in the aforementioned band Ashes & Arrows. “Winning the competition was an absolute thrill! All the new artists and fans that were amongst us and in the crowd made the day feel very special and hopeful for the future. Since 2023, we have been able to create a band that has been able to travel and play music for thousands of fans across the country, but MerlFest will always be one of our most memorable experiences, and we hope to make more memories there for years to come! Fast forward to the 2024 festival, and we are so excited to be able to share our growth and joy of music with many of the same friendly faces again!”

Craven concurred. She said that the crowd’s enthusiasm plays a major role in the process overall. “I think our audience is excited to see the wealth of talent we round up for the band contest each year,” she continued. “And 2024 will be no exception.”

You can find information about all things MerleFest ’24 online.

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About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.