Preparations are well underway for MerleFest 2013, presented by Lowe’s, which officially begins next Thursday, April 25, and runs through Sunday, April 28, on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.As in years past, fans at MerleFest can expect the unexpected with special surprises, spontaneous jam sessions and one-of-a-kind musical collaborations, with over 90 performers playing on 14 stages during the four-day festival.However, for the first time in its 26 years, MerleFest will take place without beloved music icon Doc Watson, who passed away on May 29, 2012. So during this year’s festival, attendees can anticipate special tributes to the man and the musician who was described by the New York Times as “the guitarist and folk singer whose flat-picking style elevated the acoustic guitar to solo status in bluegrass and country music, and whose interpretations of traditional American music profoundly influenced generations of folk and rock guitarists.”As in previous years, the list of performers fits the “traditional plus” definition originally offered by the late Doc Watson. Watson coined this term to describe the unique mix of music found at MerleFest: traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock, “plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play,” he explained. The complete lineup and stage schedules are posted at www.merlefest.org, and festival updates are delivered via Twitter (@MerleFest) and Facebook.Thursday, April 25, will feature performances by artists including The Charlie Daniels Band, Leon Russell, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Dehlia Low, Red Molly, The Greencards, Enter The Haggis, Pete and Joan Wernick and others. That afternoon, participants in Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Bluegrass Jam Camp will perform on the Cabin Stage. A rare opportunity for Thursday festival attendees is the chance to pick or sing during “open mic” sessions with legendary Dobro player Tut Taylor and the Local Boys. The Opening Night Dance with Enter The Haggis will take place starting at 10 p.m. at the Dance Stage. Thursday is also a day for community outreach, with several MerleFest artists visiting and performing at local schools.The schedule on Friday, April 26, includes performances by Gov’t Mule, The Del McCoury Band and The Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Russell Moore & IIIrd Tyme Out, Steep Canyon Rangers, Peter Rowan, Matraca Berg, Delta Rae, Chris Smither, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale, The Greencards, The Kruger Brothers, The Black Lillies, Scythian, The Waybacks, The Honeycutters, Tony Williamson, The Quebe Sisters Band, Jeff Little Trio, Doug MacLeod, Carol Rifkin, Laura Boosinger, Roy Book Binder and others.The culmination of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest takes place on Friday; after contest chairperson Jim Lauderdale announces the winners, the songwriters perform the winning entries on the Cabin Stage at 5 p.m.Additionally, the annual Doc Watson Guitar Championship is held on Friday; this year’s judges include Peter Rowan and Uwe Kruger, as well as last year’s contest winner, Benjamin Cockman. The annual Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Contest is also held this day; this year’s judges include Pete Wernick, Steve Lewis and Blind Boy (Jeron) Paxton, as well as last year’s contest winner, Brandon Green.The lineup for Saturday, April 27, includes performances by Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, Michael Martin Murphey, Peter Rowan Band, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Sutton, Holt and Coleman, Matraca Berg, Chris Smither, Delta Rae, Mountain Heart, Della Mae, The Kruger Brothers, Scythian, Chatham County Line, Donna the Buffalo, David Holt, Pokey LaFarge, Phil Wiggins & Corey Harris, Eilen Jewell, Blind Boy Paxton, Tom Feldman and Mike Farris among others.One of the most talked-about events of the festival will be Saturday evening’s Celebration Jam. The Jam will be hosted by Sam Bush and will feature many of Doc’s closest musician friends as they tell stories and play some of Doc’s favorites tunes. The Jam’s core band will consist of Sam Bush (mandolin/fiddle), Jeff Little (piano), T. Michael Coleman (bass), Jack Lawrence (guitar), Bryan Sutton (guitar) and David Holt (banjo.)Additionally, the ever-popular Hillside Album Hour – where a revered or iconic album is performed live from start to finish – will once again be hosted by The Waybacks, with many surprise guests joining in the performance. The highly-anticipated Midnight Jam will take place in the Walker Center (separate ticket required and available for purchase by 4-day ticket holders and Saturday-only ticket holders). This year’s Jam is hosted by Scythian, with special guests The Waybacks, Donna the Buffalo, John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, The Black Lillies, The Honeycutters, Pokey LaFarge and many others.Sunday, April 28, will feature performances by the Avett Brothers, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tift Merritt, Michael Martin Murphey, The Kruger Brothers, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Avett, Chatham County Line, T. Michael Coleman, Jeff Little Trio, Paul’s Creek Band, Jack Lawrence, Pokey LaFarge, Eilen Jewell, Susana and Timmy Abell, Pete and Joan Wernick, South Carolina Broadcasters, Roy Book Binder, Blind Boy Paxton, Bobby and Blue Ridge Tradition.In addition to the Avett Family Gospel Hour with Jim Avett and family, fans can experience the “Spirit of Sunday” set with the Nashville Bluegrass Band, which will contain a special tribute to Doc Watson.Throughout the four-day festival, the Dance Tent will feature various workshops and dance instruction with plenty of opportunities for festival attendees to cut loose with some stellar music performers. Additionally, Mayes Pit/Cohn Auditorium in Thompson Hall at MerleFest is devoted to a wide variety of workshops and demonstrations on Friday and Saturday, where world-class performers share their expertise with attendees. The Songwriters Coffeehouse will once again showcase the art of the song on Friday. On Saturday, blues lovers will want to check out the “Greatest Acoustic Blues Show on Earth” at the Austin Stage in Alumni Hall. For those attendees who like to do a little performing themselves, there is a continuous “open mic” at the Plaza Stage.In addition to music, MerleFest offers special activities and shopping, all in a family-friendly atmosphere. The Shoppes at MerleFest is a centrally-located shopping village featuring demonstrating artisans, vendors, convenience foods, official MerleFest memorabilia and services such as first aid, lost and found, and Internet access. The Little Pickers Family Area offers children’s activities, crafts and entertainment, and the MerleFest Youth Showcase, hosted by Andy May, at the Little Pickers Stage. Nature walks of the gardens and forest on the WCC campus will be offered on Friday, Saturday and Sunday.“For those wanting an affordable weekend getaway, MerleFest provides a true value to its customers,” said festival director Ted Hagaman. “The admission prices are extremely reasonable - especially considering that we feature over 90 artists on 14 stages. Also, there are no hidden charges. We provide free parking, a free shuttle that will deliver you to the entrance, a free program guide as you enter, and all children 12 and under are admitted free with a paid adult. In addition, our Little Pickers Family Area for children offers each child the opportunity to make crafts and participate in several interactive exhibits – all free of charge.”Ticket purchases can be made on the web at www.merlefest.org, by calling 1-800-343-7857, or at the gate. Gates open on Thursday at 2:30 p.m. and on Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 9 a.m.MerleFest 2013 is presented by Lowe’s. MerleFest is grateful to 100+ sponsors for their support in making the event possible, including: Wells Fargo, Charlotte and Greensboro area Burger King restaurants, G&B Energy, Pepsi, Tyson, Wilkesboro Tourism Development Authority, The InterFlex Group, Winston-Salem Journal, WXII 12, the Law Offices of Timothy D. Welborn, Hardee’s, Carolina Ford Dealers, Carolina West Wireless, CenturyLink, Chobani Yogurt, Hampton Inn Wilkesboro and visitwilkesboronc.com, Wilkes Regional Medical Center and Carolinas Healthcare System. A complete listing of all MerleFest sponsors and additional information about all aspects of the festival can be found at http://www.merlefest.org.MerleFest, considered one of the premier music festivals in the country, is an annual homecoming of musicians and music fans held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the late Eddy Merle Watson, son of American music legend Doc Watson who passed away May 29, 2012. MerleFest is a celebration of “traditional plus” music, a unique mix of music based on the traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including bluegrass and old-time music, and expanded to include Americana, country, blues, rock and many other styles. The festival hosts over 90 artists, performing on 14 stages during the course of the four-day event. The annual event has become the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.