By Dan Ruby
Note: This is an updated version of an item originally posted on July 24, based on corrected information from several sourcers.
Posters on the MerleFest discussion board are raising alarms about the future direction of the 20-year-old festival in the wake of recent departures by three key staff members. Since the most recent MerleFest last April, artistic director Claire Armbruster, marketing director Art Menius and volunteer coordinator Nancy Watson (no relation to festival godfather Doc Watson) have each left the organization, possibly less than willingly.
MerleFest is owned and operated by Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro NC, which is also the site of the festival. The festival was founded in 1986 by Frederick B Townes, then a horticulture professor at the college and now its director of development. Townes is also the executive director of MerleFest.
Two years ago, the festival promoted Ted Hagaman to the position of managing director. According to some of the disgruntled long-time attendees posting on the discussion board, Hagaman has been the driving force behind what's seen by many as MerleFest's increasing commercial orientation.
Hagaman, a former executive for the festival's presenting sponsor, Lowe's Companies, who has a background in auto-racing marketing, had been on the college and festival staff for a number of years before his promotion.
Several of the discussion-board posters have pointed to Hagaman's management style and vision for the festival as the reasons for the departures of long-time staffers. It is unknown whether any of the departures were outright dismissals, or if they were voluntary.
The 2007 festival was the first with Lowe's as presenting sponsor, a designation that puts the sponsors name into the name of the event, as in "MerleFest, Presented by Lowe's." Some posters suspect the company has influenced the direction of the festival more than is typical for festival sponsors, including getting its former executive Hagaman appointed to run the event.
The posters have questioned whether Hagaman and Lowe's share the goal of many attendees to preserve traditional music that honors the memory of Merle Watson. Instead, they worry that Hagaman will seek to include more mainstream country acts in an effort to make the event even more commercially successful.
Most of the posters acknowledge that lineup for the 2007 festival was consistent with past festivals. However, with Armbruster, Menius and Watson now gone, there is considerable concern that next year's festival will tilt in a more commercial direction.
Festival Preview will be watching and will report on any new developments.
Tuesday, July 24, 2007
By Dan Ruby
Posted by Dan Ruby at 11:58 AM