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MerleFest 2003: A Soggy and Sunny Success

By Jeff Eason, Mountain Times, 5/2003


If you don’t like the weather, just wait a few minutes. That was the catchphrase at the 16th Annual Merle Watson Music Festival held last weekend on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. 


MerleFest started on Thursday evening with cooler than average temperatures pervading the festival grounds. After a misty and foggy Friday, festival-goers were met with a mix of sunshine and torrential thunderstorms on Saturday. The MerleFest faithful were rewarded on Sunday as sunshine and warm temperatures dried up the muddier areas of the festival grounds and folks broke out the sunscreen for the first time all weekend. 


Merlefest organizers estimate a total participation of 77,337 at this year’s festival.a slight decrease from last year’s record setting 78,294. Paid attendance was approximately the same as last year’s mark of 36,000... 

...MerleFest 2003 featured wonderful performances by headliners Harris, Doc Watson, David Holt, Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Del McCoury Band, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Asleep at the Wheel, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Leahy, Donna the Buffalo, Sam Bush Band, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Hot Rize, Vassar Clements, and Rhonda Vincent & the Rage. While most of these bands had been to MerleFest before, some of the biggest buzz was generated by relative newcomers The Waybacks, Dale Ann Bradley and The Red Stick Ramblers... 


Contest Winners 

Todd resident Steve Lewis won the 2002 MerleFest Banjo Contest and followed up that victory with a win in the 2003 Doc Watson Guitar Championship at this year’s festival. Brandon Davis of Independence, Virginia, came in the second while Tony Watt of Johnson City, Tennessee finished third. 


This year’s Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Champion was Ryan Cavanaugh of Chapel Hill [former teacher at Meadowood Music]. Ben Krakaner of Charlottesville, Virginia came in second while Joey Cox of Pulaski, Virginia finished third. 


In the MerleFest Mandolin Contest, Chris Harris of Eden, North Carolina won this year while Scott Pearson of Warren, Pennsylvania, and Josh Pinkham of Odessa, Florida, finished second and third, respectively. 


The Annual Chris Austin Songwriting Contest attracted a record-setting 794 entries this year. Three finalists from four separate categories competed on the Chris Austin Songwriting Stage on Friday with the four winners performing on the Cabin Stage that evening. In the General Category, Scott Carter of Nashville won with his song “River.” Ron Poythress of Carolina Beach came in second with “The Lone Cypress,” while Lisa Richards of Austin, Texas finished third with “I Can See Love.” In the Country Category, Connie Townsend & Dave Parker of Elkins, West Virginia, won with their song “Rock Me Like A Lullaby.” Molly Sloan on Nashville came in second with “Almost True,” while Rowland Stubbins of Nashville finished third with “Wine and Beer When You Are Here.” In the Gospel Category, Ruth Bloomquist of Muskegon, Michigan won with her song “By The River.” Lizza Connor of Nashville came in second with “There is a Place,” while Mark Brinkman of Pickerington, Ohio finished third with “When Heavenly Hills Come Calling for Me.” In the Bluegrass Category, Adrienne Young of Nashville won with her song “Sadie’s Song,” a clever retelling of the old ballad “Little Sadie,” told from the victim’s point of view. Mark Brinkman came in second with “The Ghost of Silas Jordan,” while Robert Wright of Staten Island, NY, finished third with “I’m Getting Pretty Good at Being Lonesome.” 


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