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Patron Program Is a Family Tradition

18-month-old Walt meets FlattopThe Williams family of Lewisville, N.C., is the poster family for the MerleFest patron program. Dan and Margaret became patrons when they learned about the program in 2000. As their children were born, they too have become patrons. And, the Williamses have recruited family friends to the patron program.

Margaret Williams came to the first MerleFest in 1988 with her brother. In 1989, Margaret attended the second MerleFest. Unbeknownst to her, her future husband, Dan, was also at the festival that year. The two met in 1990 and attended the festival together for the first time in 1991.

"We've been coming ever since. We came as a young couple. We came when we were pregnant. We came when the babies were tiny. Nothing ever stops us from coming to MerleFest," says Margaret. "It is a family tradition for us."

Their children, 15-year-old Walt, 14-year-old Noah, 10-year-old Anna and 9-year-old Martha, love the festival as much as their parents do. Each family member has his and her own favorite part of MerleFest.

Martha's favorite part of the annual event is getting autographs and eating Lucky Charms, a treat she only gets at MerleFest. Anna's favorite was riding around festival grounds in her little red wagon, something all four children have gotten to do over the years until they each outgrew the stylish mode of transportation.

Walt in Little Red Wagon"We had a little red wagon on which we made a canopy out of bandanas. Dr. Burns (president of Wilkes Community College and MerleFest photographer) always looked for us, the family with the little red wagon, so he could take photos of us," says Margaret. "Our boys were even used in one of the MerleFest ads when they were 2 and 4 at the time."

Noah's favorite part of MerleFest is spending time with family and friends and listening to great music at Creekside. Walt's favorite is jamming with people in the Expo Tent.

Mom and dad's fondest memory: "Getting up really early, like at 4:30 in the morning, and making a mad dash across the field with our chairs to get a really good spot. We have met a lot of good people in that early morning line, some that have now been our friends for decades. Making good friends, that is a treasured aspect of MerleFest."

Those friends are Andy and Linda Haynes and Rick and Cindy Gentry. Like us, they are all patrons now. Every year Cindy would put together activity bags for the children, a highly anticipated surprise. And the surprise always included the best treat of the day, her chocolate chip cookies.

Rick and Diana with Linda Haynes and Dan Williams"We were really sad two years ago when Cindy passed away with cancer that she had battled for a really long time," explains Margaret. "Rick still comes to the festival with us and has since remarried. He now brings his new wife, Diana, with him."

The Williamses brought their niece with them for many years. And their nephew has joined them for the past three or four years. They were also joined by the Zenger family for a number of years.

"The Zengers have four children, all the same ages as our children," says Margaret. "We would create our own matching t-shirts and wear them to the festival. It worked well because we could keep up with eight kids and do a quick headcount based on the number of matching t-shirts."

Those matching t-shirts are now family treasures because the kids would collect autographs on them.

"We got Doc almost every year, so that was very exciting. We even got his brother, David, a couple of years."

Doc and David Watson greet Zengers and Williamses

Other lifelong friends the Williams family made at MerleFest are "B" Townes, who helped found the festival in 1988, and Jim Matthews, an early organizer at MerleFest. Matthews introduced the family to The Cook Shack, a live music venue and eatery in Union Grove, N.C.

The Williamses have always camped at MerleFest. They started camping at the old airport.

"One year they advertised that they would have showers, so we got really excited. When we got there, we realized the showers were a bunch of 2-by-4s hammered together with garbage bags stapled to the wood and a garden hose flipped over the top," says Margaret. "But, when you camp for four days at MerleFest, you really don't care what the shower looks like because you really need it by then.

"It is hard for us to communicate how much MerleFest means to us, so when we learned about the patron program, we really wanted to be a part of it. Our friends and we were all in this together, so we all became patrons together. It was kind of a given for all of us to do the patron program. We learned that MerleFest wanted to use the program to support the School Outreach and the Garden for the Senses," adds Margaret. "I am a special education teacher, and Dan and I both come from large families. We always wanted our kids to be exposed to music, so we just thought that it was such a cool thing that MerleFest was going to help expose children in the school system to the music. And, obviously with Doc being blind and me working with special needs children, it was very important for us to support the Garden for the Senses."

Jam Camp participants perform on Cabin Stage in 2011

One way the Williams boys have been exposed to music is through participation at Pete and Joan Wernick's MerleFest Jam Camp, held the week of MerleFest at the Herring Ridge YMCA Camp in Wilkes County. Dan and his sons have participated for three years. The second year Rick and Andy joined them. And in 2011, Margaret took part as well. She says that all of the instructors have encouraged the children and helped build their confidence as musicians, so much so that the boys now take part in the MerleFest Youth Showcase, hosted by Andy May.

Walt on fiddle along with Noah, Martha, Noah Zenger and Savanah Zenger"We also love the on-stage seating offered through the patron program because we get to see our favorite performers up close and speak with them. The year that we discovered Scythian, they played for the patrons' breakfast. Now every year they recognize our kids as the family with the matching t-shirts," explains Margaret. "In fact, Scythian helped influence our kids to want to take music lessons. We are on our way to guitar lessons right now. It is exciting to be encouraged by someone famous who thinks you can do it. They always make time to talk to us. And, I can't tell you how many times my son has gotten to speak to Sam Bush. Sam always makes time to speak to us." (Margaret was speaking to me from her car as she was transporting the children to music lessons.)

When asked to name their favorite performers at MerleFest, everyone had shared one in common. Dan's favorite: Tim O'Brien and Doc; Margaret's: Mark Schatz and Doc. Walt's: Tim O'Brien, Sam Bush and Doc; Noah's: Kruger Brothers, Tony Rice and Doc; Anna's: Sam Bush and Doc; and Martha's: Kruger Brothers and Doc.

Each of the family members had their own "greatest discovery" at MerleFest. Dan's was the Kruger Brothers when they first started playing at MerleFest. Margaret's best discovery was Leahy. Walt's was Scythian. Noah's was Dailey & Vincent. Anna's was Alison Krauss. And Martha's was the Snyder Family.

One of the Williams family's favorite things about MerleFest is the way artists hang around for the whole festival because the artists love it as much as the fans do. It has become as much a tradition for the musicians as for the music fans.

In addition to the lifelong friendships made at MerleFest, the Williams family has made some pretty significant connections with artists along the way. As mentioned, the guys of Scythian and Sam Bush recognize the family from year to year. Another one is Laura Boosinger. She is one of the family's favorites from the Little Pickers Stage. The kids especially like her song about the old groundhog. Dan, Noah and Martha doing crafts

"The kids used to perform Laura's old groundhog song every evening before they would go to bed. Laura invited Walt and Noah to open for her when she was performing at The Cook Shack," says Margaret. "It is wonderful that the artists at MerleFest take time to nurture and encourage young children. There are just so many things we love about MerleFest that we could write a book about it with our pictures and memories of the kids growing up there. And, that is really what MerleFest is all about - family."