On Friday evening, April 26, 1996, the great music was exemplified by a solid two-hour performance of folk music by first-timer John Prine. Other new faces included Alvin Youngblood Hart, the New Lost City Ramblers, Darrell Scott and Dave Van Ronk. Of course, MerleFest welcomed back many of its longtime friends like John Cowan, Peter Rowan, Ricky Skaggs, Frosty Morn, Jerry Douglas, David Holt, Sam Bush, Cephas and Wiggins, Tony Rice and Bill Monroe and The Bluegrass Boys. The acoustic blues show emceed by Roy Book Binder on the Austin Stage began in 1996 and has become a favorite of the festival. According to a local newspaper report, Alison Krauss, a big draw on Sunday, called MerleFest the best festival in the country as she signed autographs and spoke to fans after playing with her band Union Station.
In addition, beginning in 1996, MerleFest began welcoming more than 3,200 public school students on Friday of the festival as part of School Day. The students arrive on buses with their teachers and chaperones to experience the festival firsthand and learn about the musical heritage of this region. School Day was an addition to the Walker Center School Events Program, which started in 1984 and offers plays or musical performances throughout the year that relate to the curriculum in area schools.
Volunteers serve in various capacities during School Day to help ensure the safety of all children while on the festival grounds. Many have volunteered with this program from its inception and always want to have a role in such a vital part of MerleFest.