The first thing you notice when you get to Merlefest is the sheer number of people. Around 76,000 attended the four-day festival at Wilkes Community College. The second thing you notice is the number of people carrying their own instruments - guitars, banjos, mandolins, upright bass. You get the picture. You can find them at the Pickin' Tents. Outside are the instrument cases strewn about, inside are the players.
"One of them is bluegrass, you can see that one is bluegrass picking" says Tony Helms, a musician and festival attendee. "That one is Anything Goes, you can bring any kind of instrument in there and have at it. And this is traditional where you mostly hear the traditional mountain music. Helms has come to Merlefest for the past 11 years with his band from Chester, South Carolina. He plays the upright bass. "We get up under a shade tree most of the time and pick and grin and have a crowd standin around and have a good time. Tony Helms often forgoes the concerts at Merlefest to play music with his band in the Picking Tents. Photo: Briana Duggan The Pickin tent area is sort of like the town square of Merlefest. Most people stop through on their way to one of the festival's 14 stages. You can listen, jam - or clog. Connie Carringer has been coming to Merlefest for five years to teach people about flatfoot dancing. She says that some of the festival's main acts have been known to come down to the tents and jam. "Jubal's Kin is a great band of new folks and they will come out and jam at the tents." She says. "They are great musicians. Then you have people who are just here jamming who are amazing musicians but they aren't here to perform they are just here to play music with other people and listen to great music." Many attendees brought their own instrument to Merlefest in case inspiration struck. Photo: Briana Duggan "Even at night at the campsite a lot of our friends will pull out their instruments and everyone kind of plays music around the campfire" says Harry Trachtenberg. He has been coming to Merlefest for 16 years. He used to bring his girlfriend - who became his wife. Now they bring their children. "I think that most of the fans here are music lovers or play an instrument themselves," he says, "so I think there is a connection between the audience and the musicians." Uwe Kruger is part of The Kruger Brothers, one of the weekend's biggest acts. Uwe sees Merlefest as a sort of home coming for musicians. "Merlfest is the first big festival every year." Uwe says. "See the winter is when everybody goes into hibernation right, that is when everybody gets to practice and write new songs, and then you can't wait to go and try them out." "They watch the musicians, they watch the audiences. It's like going to a fair - to a trade show." The Charlotte Arts Journalism Alliance is a collaborative effort of WFAE, the Charlotte Observer, WCNC-TV, QCityMetro.com, Charlotte Viewpoint and UNC-Charlotte to enhance arts coverage in our region.