Words By: Anson Burtch :: Images by Willa Stein & Gabe Nelson
Merlefest :: 04.26.07 – 04.29.07
Wilkes Community College :: Wilkesboro, NC
Twenty years ago, Doc Watson and some friends from the local community college set up a festival to honor the passing of his son Merle Watson. Dubbed "Merlefest," the concert was held in a field with a flatbed truck for a stage, where they played to a small but supportive audience. Fast forward to 2007 where a total of 76,558 people gathered for four days to witness over 90 bands on 14 stages. Tony Rice with Alison Krauss & Union Station, Elvis Costello, the Del McCoury Band and the Sam Bush Band headlined along with a fantastic crop of newcomers like the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, and The Infamous Stringdusters. Saturday night's Alison Krauss set was the second highest single-day attendance in the festival's history (Dolly Parton's evening set is still the title holder).
Earl Scruggs & Doc Watson :: Merlefest 2007 by Stein
Bands With Buzz
The group that created the most buzz at Merlefest this year was the Carolina Chocolate Drops, who come from a long tradition of African-American string bands. Their appearance on the Cabin Stage Friday night electrified the crowd, many of whom had never even heard of the band. The rollicking, foot-stomping, old-time numbers like "Georgie Buck" got people talking. At the next day's Chocolate Drops set in the indoor lounge a huge line of people had to be turned away at the door. Rhiannon Giddens plays banjo and fiddle and sings with a crystal clear voice. Justin Robinson plays fiddle and banjo and can dance a mean flatfoot. Dom Flemons is a man of many instruments, playing resonator guitar, banjo, harmonica and the jug. They are well versed in traditional music, playing tunes such as "Starry Crown" and "Little Sadie." Joe Thompson, who's been playing fiddle for over 80 years, joined them for a set on the Traditional Stage on Saturday. The band has a keen sense of humor, as well. Included in their set on Sunday was Blu Cantrell's 2001 R&B chart-topper, "Hit 'Em Up Style," reworked as an old-time number.
Carolina Chocolate Drops :: Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
Also making a huge impact at the festival was a group from Boston, MA called Crooked Still. This alternative bluegrass outfit is exactly what Americana music needs - new blood that honors old-time traditions but takes things in their own direction. The instrumentation is unique with banjo, bass, a lead singer and a cello. That's right, introducing Rushad Eggleston on the bluegrass cello. He does a fine job of it, too. On Bill Monroe's "Can't You Hear Me Callin" his solos and deep mandolin-like chop gave the song an entirely new feel. Eggleston is given to wild outfits and off-color stage banter but that didn't prevent him from appearing with just about every other group at the festival. Without a guitar or mandolin in the group, Crooked Still's music provides a strong base on which they build layers. First with banjo, courtesy of Dr. Gregory Liszt, who played on Bruce Springsteen's Seeger Sessions. Angelic voiced lead singer Aoife O'Donovan displays incredible tone and deep emotion as she floats atop the foundation. The band played "Orphan Girl" at a tempo so fast it would have given Gillian Welch a heart attack. Crooked Still is already well known in New England, and with performances like the one at Merlefest it won't be long before they are sweeping the country.
Rushad Eggleston - Crooked Still
Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
Rarely does a band go from zero-to-sixty as fast as The Infamous Stringdusters. This Nashville, TN sextet is comprised of some of the most talented young musicians playing today. Every member takes turns singing, and most of them are songwriters, too. Their sets created quite a buzz with overflow crowds at most of the stages. Kicking off with "Starry Night" and "Poor Boy's Delight" from their debut album on Sugar Hill Records, the band showed they were serious about their bluegrass. Andy Hall's dobro playing was exquisite – evocative soaring melodies that tugged at the heartstrings, while Guitarist Chris Eldridge played with dexterity. He ripped intricate solos that showed his knowledge of the guitar extends far beyond bluegrass. The band has great harmonies and eschews the traditional high lonesome sound, proving you can have good bluegrass without the nasal vocals. The exciting thing about The Infamous Stringdusters is their creativity and their ability to flat out jam. This is the start of a long run for these guys. Look for them at all the major bluegrass festivals this summer.
Infamous Stringdusters with Aoife O'Donovan
Merlefest 2007 by Stein
Officially a celebration of Americana music, Merlefest has been getting better about stretching those boundaries. Enter Toubab Krewe from Asheville, NC but with a sound that's oceans away. This instrumental group has a fantastic Afro-Caribbean feel. Combining West African rhythms with reggae style guitar and good old fashioned jams, the Krewe kept the audience on their feet and dancing the night away. Keep an eye out for them at Wakarusa and High Sierra in the coming months.
Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
The Steep Canyon Rangers continued to add to their stellar reputation. These guys play traditional bluegrass of the highest order, blazingly fast and so tight you couldn't even slip in a thirty-second note. The band dresses sharper than Del McCoury, but more importantly, writes great original material. During their Hillside Stage set Friday morning, they played a few new tunes including "Kirkendall" and "Cumberland Moon." Always prolific, look for these songs on their next album, due out this summer. As a bonus, Friday evening banjo player Graham Sharp took part in a songwriter's coffeehouse in the Lounge. Listeners were treated to a rare sight, Graham playing the guitar and singing lead in his deep baritone voice.
Steep Canyon Rangers
Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
The Duhks took Merlefest by storm a few years ago, and the buzz hasn't abated yet. This group from Winnipeg, Canada plays the most exciting modern folk music around. Take a string band and add Celtic and French Canadian influences plus a lot of folk rock and you're still only beginning to get the picture. New lead singer Sarah Dugas has only been with the band a month but you'd never know it. Her powerful voice fits perfectly with the band, and she didn't miss a beat. The whole group has great energy and played a number of tracks from their latest album including "Ol' Cook Pot" and a great Tracy Chapman cover, "Mountains O' Things." The highlight of their set was THE John Paul Jones joining them for the Zeppelin's "Whole Lotta Love."
The best feeling in the world is discovering a phenomenal artist that you had no idea even existed. While wandering between stages, a captivating voice came drifting through the air. It was Ruthie Foster holding court on the Austin Stage. Her powerful vocals filled the space as she played blues guitar and sang her heart out. She performed a mix of gospel, roots, blues and her own originals. There was an Odetta cover, then she led a call and response with the audience that had every single person involved. Her original material was fantastic. "Learn to Pray" was about her mother and "Real Love" was insightful and soulful. If you are a fan of roots/blues music check out this amazing artist.
Ruthie Foster :: Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
The women of Uncle Earl may live all over the country but they've managed to become one of the most popular bands in old-time music today. This all-female outfit boasts four talented musicians steeped in string band tradition. Their sound harkens back to an era of Appalachian front porch picking. They played a number of sets over the weekend, with songs ranging from traditional tunes like "Wish I Had My Time Again" to originals such as "One True." They can each sing lead and back each other up with vocal harmonies. John Paul Jones sat in and played mandolin for a few numbers. This was Jones's second time appearing at Merlefest. The Amerciana bug has bitten him, and he recently produced Uncle Earl's latest album, Waterloo, Tennessee. Be ready for some stories if you see the 'g'Earls' (as they call themsleves). They can get very chatty onstage.
Uncle Earl with John Paul Jones
Merlefest 2007 by Stein
Perennial Merlefest favorites Donna The Buffalo brought their feel good boogie with multiple sets throughout the festival. This band radiates love and positive energy. Their successful combination of boogie, zydeco, and folk rock energizes folks that dance their way through life. In a very emotional moment, they dedicated "Seems To Want to Hurt This Time" to the folks at Virginia Tech. Fiddle player Tara Nevins leads a double life, writing old-time material by day and rocking out with Donna The Buffalo by night. She took some time to stop by the traditional tent with her old-time band to play a few numbers. "Train 45" was especially good, and the old fiddle numbers transported you back a hundred years in time.
Tara Nevins - Donna The Buffalo
Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
Jerry Douglas got a solo set Friday night on the main stage. What followed was an onslaught of ten-minute dobro jams. His ability to make that instrument sing is amazing. One minute it's a peaceful melody and the next he's rocking out. Fiddle player Luka Bulla was outstanding, playing beautifully as the band kicked it up a notch with a honky-tonk guitar sound for the finale.
Merlefest patriarch and true living legend, Doc Watson is still a master of the guitar. Despite being 84 year old, he played on almost every stage during the weekend. Friday evening featured Watson with his Frosty Morn Band, who picked all of Merle's favorites including "New River Train" and a great version of "Crossroads." Watson's voice is strong and clear, and his finger picking sends chills down the spine. During a particularly poignant set on Sunday morning, he played with the Nashville Bluegrass Band as they covered a number of gospel tunes and Watson took time to tell stories about his life. His rendition of "Wondrous Love" left the crowd in tears. Watson's stage banter is hilarious, such as calling for his "cheater" (his capo) or says "let me fix a wire here" (tune his guitar).
Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
Perhaps the most sought after songwriter on the bill was Darrell Scott. He was a big presence at the festival, playing three sets over the course of the weekend. He shaved the beard he had last year and added some new songs. The best of these was "Sticking My Redneck Out," a great number with plenty of social and political references. While Merlefest is predominantly acoustic, nothing beats Scott rocking out on electric guitar, as he did on "The River Is Me." He had a couple of talented musicians in his band including keyboard player Gabe Dixon and fiddle player Casey Driessen. Dixon sang a beautiful original called "All Will be Well," while Driessen did a futuristic version of the "Sugarfoot Rag." Another highlight was Scott pulling out all the stops for a spooky rendition of "You'll Never Leave Harlan Alive."
After stealing the festival last year with an epic set, San Francisco's The Waybacks returned to play a fantastic set on the Hillside Stage Saturday afternoon. This band plays jamgrass at its best – fast, loose and with flair. Along with cuts from their latest album, they worked in "19th Nervous Breakdown" and a "Cumberland Blues" that featured a fantastic "Blackberry Blossom" jam in the middle. James Nash plays an acoustic/electric guitar that allows him to go from strumming to shredding at the flip of a switch. But, somehow fiddler Warren Hood always manages to steal the show. His heart-stopping encore displayed complex fiddling that ranged from bluegrass to classical. The highlight of the set was John Cowan joining them to sing lead on CCR's "Fortunate Son." Cowan's high wail pierced the sky and sent the crowd into a frenzy.
Casey Driessen :: Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
Headliners And Jams
Commemorating twenty years of the festival, Sam Bush hosted the 20th Anniversary Jam on Saturday night. With a dream lineup that included Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, Peter Rowan, Bryan Sutton, John Cowan, Stuart Duncan, Bela Fleck and Jack Lawrence, among many others. The music evoked memories of years past and was a fitting tribute to Merle Watson. Doc Watson and banjo player Dave Holt played "Pear Tree," an old-time instrumental as well as "Little Cabin Home." The Nashville Bluegrass Band joined the fun for "No Hiding Place." Then, Earl Scruggs came out to pick a few tunes. It was truly a joy to see Scruggs sitting side by side with Watson. Here were two of Americana's greatest musicians sharing the stage. When Bela Fleck joined the jam, the ensemble played an incredible version "Whitewater," one of Fleck's originals. Perhaps the biggest surprise of the festival came when Bush, Fleck, Cowan and guitarist Pat Flynn stepped forward together into the spotlight and played "White Freight Liner." These four gentlemen at one time comprised New Grass Revival, one the most influential acoustic groups ever. The single-song reunion was the first time the four have played together in a decade. As the set wrapped up, everyone was reminded of what an amazing and important music festival Merlefest has become. It shows no signs of slowing down and will hopefully continue for another twenty years.
Fleck, Bush, Douglas :: Merlefest 2007 by Stein
Saturday night's big show was a very special performance by Alison Krauss and Union Station with legendary guitar player Tony Rice. The set was a retrospective of Rice's illustrious career. The pairing was perfect. Krauss's vocals complimented the material very well (due to throat problems Rice stopped singing in the early 90's), while Rice demonstrated the virtuoso flat-picking that made him famous. The pairing was also fitting in light of the fact that Krauss got her first big break years ago as the fiddle player for the Tony Rice Unit. The set started off slowly and featured no less than four Gordon Lightfoot songs. Things picked up when guitar player Dan Tyminski joined Rice for "Church Street Blues." Afterwards, Jerry Douglas joined him for an amazing duet, which included "Summertime." The set picked up at the end with "Manzanita" and "Ginseng Sullivan." As the last songs were played, the video screen displayed a tribute to Rice with photos of him through the years. The highlight was the raucous closer and Rice's signature song, "Freeborn Man," that stretched on for an extended jam. It was a fitting tribute to the most innovative bluegrass guitarist ever.
Rice & Krauss :: Merlefest 2007 by Stein
So, Elvis Costello at Merlefest? Born in England with Irish heritage, he has covered the gamut of American music in his career. From his singer/songwriter roots, he has delved into country and western, New Orleans jazz and even collaborated with Burt Bacharach. His Friday night main stage set exceeded all expectations. Coming out with only an acoustic guitar, he whipped through hits such as "Angels Want To Wear My Red Shoes," "Veronica" and "Alison," which demonstrated his mastery of the sweet love song. Then, he brought out a few guests including Jim Lauderdale. They performed "High Timberline," a song Lauderdale wrote with Grateful Dead lyricist Robert Hunter. The highlight of the set was Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas joining him for an incredible "Friend of the Devil." For the encore, Costello finished with Elvis Presley's "Mystery Train." He may not immediately come to mind when one thinks of Merlefest but Elvis Costello had the crowd eating out of his hand.
Elvis Costello :: Merlefest 2007 by Nelson
After too long an absence from Merlefest, the Del McCoury Band returned with its hard-driving bluegrass. McCoury is an elder statesman of bluegrass, having played with Bill Monroe and then working as a bandleader for over 40 years. His voice defines the high lonesome sound. They came out blazing with the instrumental "Hillcrest Drive" and played a few favorites like "She's Left Me Again" and "Evangeline." What sets the band apart from their peers is their professionalism and extremely tight playing. Jason Carter is one of the best fiddle players in the business. With Del's sons Ronnie (mandolin) and Robbie (banjo), McCoury can blend three part harmonies in the classic bluegrass way, as they demonstrated on "Five Flat Rocks." New(ish) bass player Alan Bartram did an excellent job and stepped up to sing lead on Hank Williams' "You Win Again." The crowd practically demanded Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning," and the great thing about the Del McCoury Band is they never disappoint their fans. The set finished with "All Aboard" and the crowd on their feet.
Del McCoury Band :: Merlefest 2007 by Stein
Sam Bush is on a roll lately and hasn't slowed down. After a recent resurgence, he's got a new album and new banjo player, Scott Vestal. He lit up the stage Saturday evening with a very exciting set. He mixed up some of his favorite covers, such as "On the Road" by John Hartford, with hard drivin' bluegrass like "Ridin' that Bluegrass Train." With a shout out to "all you old hippies out there," Bush played "White Bird," a song by 60's San Francisco Band It's A Beautiful Day. The highlight of the set was John Paul Jones joining for a rocking' "Whole Lotta Love" (as he did the day before with The Duhks), this time with bass player Byron House doing the Robert Plant-esque vocals.
Sam Bush :: Merlefest by Nelson
Saturday morning featured the "Next Generations Superjam" with members of The Duhks, The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still and Uncle Earl. This was a great idea that brought together the most exciting young musicians at the festival. While there were moments that shined - Rushad Eggleston's bluegrass cello, Sarah Dugas singing her heart out in French and a beautiful rendition of "Redbird" - overall the jam was less than the sum of its parts. Slightly disorganized, it took a while to get going and had too many slow songs. Also, the ratio of talking-to-music was heavily in favor of talking. The lineup of talent was great and the idea came from the right place, so with a little more organization and a better setlist it could certainly be worth doing again. Plus, the artists certainly seemed to be having a great time.
Other Merlefest Moments
Blue Highway - They played smokin' bluegrass and worked up some of their sacred harp style songs on the Americana Stage.
Sierra Hull by Nelson
Bela Fleck - A blizzard of banjo wizardry, his solo performance on the Cabin Stage was essentially one long medley that encompassed bits of "Steam Powered Aeroplane," "Loch Lomond" and even a "Stairway To Heaven" tease. Uncle Earl's Abigail Washburn joined him for a couple songs. Fleck and Washburn, who perform together in Washburn's Sparrow Quartet, also played a much talked about set together in the Lounge.
Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver - Lawson wore a bright red jacket while playing with his bluegrass outfit, Quicksilver. Lawson started out with Jimmy Martin and then J.D. Crowe before striking out on his own in 1979. The band played traditional bluegrass with a heavy emphasis on gospel numbers.
Bryan Sutton and Chris Eldridge – These two amazing guitarists played duets Sunday on the Hillside Stage.
The Lovell Sisters - This five-piece newgrass band features three sisters who are all very talented. Jessica, Megan, and Rebecca Lovell play fiddle, dobro and mandolin, respectively.
Sierra Hull and Highway 111 – This young mandolin prodigy plays flawless bluegrass and has an exciting band.
Cherryholmes - This family band played on the main stage Thursday night. Yes, every single member of the six-person band is part of the immediate family. Their straight-ahead bluegrass and flashy stage outfits captivated the crowd.
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