Photos and Words by Anson Burtch
Each year, for a few days in April, Wilkesboro, North Carolina becomes the Mecca of Bluegrass music as musicians and fans gather for Merlefest. Started by the legendary Doc Watson in honor of his son Merle Watson fourteen years ago, the festival has evolved from a small memorial gathering of musicians and friends to a huge production with twelve stages and thousands of people. It has also become THE festival for Bluegrass and Americana music as well as the unofficial start of the festival season.
In recent years there has been a movement to help American Roots music gain more recognition in the music business. In 1995 a new “Americana” chart was added alongside Billboard’s Top 40 and others to track sales and airplay of this “new” very old genre. Americana includes everything from Bluegrass, traditional folk, alt-country, and blues to new acoustic music, songwriters, rockabilly, gospel, and all hybrids in between. Merlefest is a true celebration of Americana music. The diversity and range of the artists presented cover almost every part of this spectrum. There were shows by Earl Scruggs, Doc Watson, and the Del McCoury Band as well as the David Grisman Quintet, Donna the Buffalo, and New Orleans Klezmer Allstars.
The festival is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in the foothills of Western North Carolina. There are twelve stages set at various locations around the campus. The main stage is the Watson stage. The stage is almost 10 feet off the ground providing good sight lines for those way in the back. Just off to the right of the Watson stage is the Cabin stage. This is primarily for mini-sets while the acts on the main stage set up and break down their equipment. Extending from the stage out to the sound tower are rows of lawn chairs reserved for people who purchased assigned seats tickets. Because there is so much to see often these seats are empty during prime performances. Anyone is allowed to come up and sit in these seats during the daytime with the understanding that they are to be relinquished to the owner if they arrive. Beyond the sound tower there is a large field where people spread out blankets and set up chairs. This area is general admission and people come early to establish a “base” from which they can wander to other stages during the day. Personally I prefer the freedom of stretching out on the grass to the confines of assigned seating. For those of you who like to boogie, there is a special dance area off to the left side reserved for dancers. However for the big evening sets like Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, you will find the entire field on its feet grooving to the music.
A new addition this year was a large video screen to the right of the stage broadcasting live feed from the main stage. Although I’m not normally a fan of such screens, the addition was well received by the crowd and well produced by the organizers. For one it was not obnoxiously large, and there was no noticeable delay as you usually get in large venues towards the back where it takes the sound longer to arrive than the visual image. There were two or three cameras that switched between wide shots of the band and closeups of performers singing or playing blistering solos. Having the screen was a big advantage for those way in the back. Some performers even mugged for the camera and Dolly Parton literally filled the screen.
First and foremost, Merlefest is about the music. With so much going on at all times it is impossible to see everything. This often leads to very difficult choices. For example following were all the acts playing on Saturday at noon: The Dan Tyminski Band; Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart; “Mando Mania” with Sam Bush, David Grisman, Mike Compton, and Chris Thile; Rhonda Vincent and the Rage; “Bass Workshop” with Dennis Crough, T. Michael Coleman, and Mark Schatz; “Blues afternoon” with Doc and Richard Watson; and last but not least, Peter Rowan and Tony Rice. I chose the “Mando Mania” but you couldn’t go wrong with any of those choices. Thus the shows mentioned here are but a small sample of the many performances going on.
I arrived on Thursday and headed for the music immediately. Already on the Cabin stage were the Kruger Brothers, a bluegrass act from Switzerland. Although they spoke with heavy accents, they managed to sing all the bluegrass classics very clearly. I was very impressed with their playing. The guitar licks were fast and furious while the banjo player did a great job on “Orange Blossom Special.” Next on the main stage was Canadian fiddler Richard Wood. His trio played very nice folk-grass with lots of Celtic influence. Their songs had wonderful stories and reminded me of fellow Canadian Gordon Lightfoot’s tunes. Their piano player blended nicely with the fiddles and guitars for a unique sound. Following next on the Cabin stage was Tift Merritt. She was the winner of the songwriters contest and performed a few intensely emotional folk songs with just her voice and guitar. And what a voice! While she seemed a bit nervous before such a large audience, her voice was beautiful and strong. The exposure gained at Merlefest for up and coming artists often adds many fans to their audience.
As the evening went on the big names started to appear. The Lonesome River Band came out and played a driving set of bluegrass on the main stage. LRB has done very well in album sales and is an established touring act. Their banjo player Sammy Shelor is a five time International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) banjo player of the year winner. The recent addition of fiddle player Rickie Simpkins (formerly of the Tony Rice Unit and Continental Divide) is a big success. Rickie has an exciting stage presence who can tear up a fiddle solo. Thursday was no exception, featuring Rickie on a number of solos. Lonesome River Band put on an up-tempo set of bluegrass originals and standards. The crowd cheered wildly for their favorites. Next on the Cabin Stage was John McEuen and Jimmy Ibbostson. Both are Nitty Gritty Dirt Band alumni. They played a few songs which included old NGDB tunes and original compositions.
By this time it was getting dark and the crowd was fired up for the Del McCoury Band. Del McCoury has been around almost as long as bluegrass and is one of the definitive singers of the genre. However the Del McCoury Band is anything but a nostalgic review of old songs, they are the tightest touring act in bluegrass today. Del has kept his band current by constantly recording new albums, writing new material and touring the country. The lineup includes his son Ronnie McCoury who has won IBMA Mandolin player of the year many times over. Also included is Jason Carter, a young fiddle player with incredible licks and a solo album to his name. The band took the stage by storm, all crowding around one microphone in the center and each stepping up front and center as they took a solo. This band is the tightest act in bluegrass today. Playing so many dates together on the road, they seem to know what each other member is thinking, stopping on a dime and doing amazing round-robin solos where each takes a short turn. The set was filled with new material the band has been writing for their upcoming album. A likely single off that new disk was a fast bluegrass tune about a fated love and a Vincent ’52 motorcycle. The banjo player Rob McCoury sang one song and he sounds like his father. They got a huge ovation and came back out for a few more.
Next on the Cabin stage was Stacey Earle and Mark Stuart. This husband and wife duo have been touring heavily in the past year. Stacey has an amazing voice and writes very personal songs. Mark is quite a picker and played well. Their sound was a bluegrass/folk cross, with up tempo bluegrass melodies and folk storytelling lyrics.
Closing out the first day were Bela Fleck and the Flecktones. This is the great diversity of Merlefest. Not more than an hour before Del McCoury was on same stage where Bela, Victor Wooten, Futureman, and Jeff Coffin now came out to a very enthusiastic crowd. Their set was pure Flecktones, that crazy hybrid of jazz, bluegrass, world, and many other styles of music. Bela played on his modern electric banjo switching between an electric sound and an acoustic one as needed. At one point he “dueled” with Victor Wooten as each swapped licks trying to out-do the other. This is a difficult thing to do when you are up against Victor Wooten. Considered one of the best modern bass players around, Victor has a fast and furious style that would even leave some bluegrass pickers in the dust. During solos, his hands would be moving so fast they were a blur. Futureman is from another universe entirely, but brings the world music and percussive element to the group. Playing his very own “Synth-axe Drumitar” he manages scorching percussion solos while flailing like a lead guitarist. His sound is unique because the percussive elements programmed into his instrument are rarely the common snare or kick drum. Futureman is more likely to sample African choirs and sounds from nature. Jeff Coffin adds depth to the group. The accomplished horn player plays jazz sounding saxophone and flute. They played songs from their new Outbound CD which won a Grammy for best contemporary jazz album. “And we always thought we were a bluegrass band…or maybe a polka band,” explained Bela as they launched into “Polka on the Banjo” from the “Bluegrass Sessions” disk. After an excellent set, they came back out and encored with “Flight of the Cosmic Hippo” to send everyone home happy.
“Home” at festivals such as this one are often large tent cities that spring up in fields overnight. Unlike most festivals that I’ve attended, the camping arrangements are entirely separate from the festival. There isn’t enough room on the campus to hold all the stages and a large campground. Wilkes County provides camping space at the Riverside campground located only a half mile away. The free shuttle service provided by the local Boy Scout troops is fast and effective. Only after the main evening acts finish are there lines for the buses. Even then the wait is not long and for those of you like me who can’t handle long lines, you can walk the distance back in about ten minutes. Another popular campground is the VWF family campground. Located only three miles from the festival, this campground also provides fast, free shuttle service. Others choose to stay in local hotels or with friends in the area.
Be aware that Merlefest is a family festival and there is absolutely no alcohol or glass containers allowed inside. Coolers with drinks and lunches are allowed, but they are thoroughly checked for glass and alcohol. I witnessed many humorous reactions from patrons who were not aware that they would be drinking water all day. I would recommend saving the revelry for the campsite as the security inside is strict on this policy.
Friday came with blazing heat and sunny skies. After loading up on the sunblock SPF 30 it was time to head in for more music. First stop was The Americana stage where Red Mountain White Trash were performing. This group would go over well at a barn dance. They played very fast danceable numbers and had a smokin’ fiddle player. Many songs were old-time numbers with vocals to match. Next it was over to the Hillside stage where the Del McCoury Band was playing an afternoon set. Performers usually play multiple times during the festival. In case you missed a set by your favorite act, odds are they would be playing again soon on another stage. Del’s band was right on again, electrifying the stage with their tight solos and harmonies. They made an effort not to repeat any songs they had played the previous evening, and didn’t expect for the Vincent ’52 song which Del obviously enjoys.
Then it was back to the Watson stage to catch the Seldom Scene. Despite having gone through major lineup changes in the past few years this band still sings and plays true to their original sound that made them popular almost thirty years ago. Their vocal harmonies are some of the best and they keep the spirit of the late John Duffy alive in their music. One notable addition is Chris Eldridge. The son of Ben Eldridge, banjo player and only remaining original member, Chris has a very straight-forward bluegrass guitar style that fits in well with the band. One highlight from their set was the Chuck Berry song “Nadine,” proof that the Seldom Scene were the original bad boys of bluegrass.
Another positive aspect of Merlefest is the surprise factor. Next on the cabin stage was an unscheduled appearance by Nickel Creek and Moondi Klein. Nickel Creek is one of the best contemporary bands recording right now, but much more on that later. Moondi spent time with the Seldom Scene and is now with the acoustic outfit Chesapeake. With Moondi singing lead vocals they played “Willow Tree” and a great version of Van Morrison’s “Moondance.”
Next it was over to the Hillside stage for Donna the Buffalo with Jeff Coffin. Donna the Buffalo hail from upstate New York and have become a popular act at Merlefest. They play a unique blend of roots, boogie, and jam music guaranteed to send their audience into a dancing frenzy. I especially enjoyed the last two songs of the set. One had excellent lyrics about global unity without sounding superficial. There was a huge crowd there to see them with a dance pit up front. Judging by the size of the crowds at their performances, this band is very popular. Being from New York they don’t tour much down south, as far as I know, but do frequent many of the summertime festivals, so be sure to catch them when they come through.
After Donna the Buffalo I remained at the Hillside stage to get good seats for the next show. While waiting I could clearly hear one of the craziest jam sessions imaginable over on the Plaza stage. Victor Wooten, Futureman, and Posi Leppikangas were playing a percussive funky ambient jam which sounded exciting despite it’s lack of song structure. Before too long the Hillside stage had a large audience in anticipation of “Howlin’ on the Hillside” featuring Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck and Ronnie Simpkins. Merlefest always puts on a number of “All-Star” jams with a collection of well-known performers. The gang came out to huge applause and launched into a number of old bluegrass songs. The performance was fun and very informal. Knowing each other so well, they joked around and hurled good-natured insults back and forth off-mic. Ricky Skaggs played some flashy licks on the mandolin. Sam Bush plays fiddle so well you’d forget that his main instrument is a mandolin. Tony Rice looked like a million dollars in his full dark suit and tie despite the incredibly hot day. It was good to see him up and performing after a rough year. He has had throat problems for a few years now and it has robbed him of his beautiful tenor singing voice. Then there was a hand injury which prevented him from touring with Bela’s Bluegrass Sessions tour. However his spirits were high and he hasn’t lost any of the magic he creates with a Martin guitar. The crowd was into this show, calling for an encore which was obliged and even attempting to get a second one.
I headed back to the Watson stage for the big evening festivities. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder came out and played rip-roaring bluegrass. Ricky grew up playing bluegrass and was a member of the Country Gentlemen at one time, but drifted into country music and became a big star of the genre. Then a few years ago he released “Bluegrass Rules” a CD returning to his true roots. The bluegrass community welcomed him back like the prodigal son and he has been faithful, releasing “Ancient Tones” another collection of bluegrass songs since then. Ricky’s backing band, Kentucky Thunder, are amazing musicians in their own right. The set consisted of old standards and tunes from his bluegrass albums. The band really shined during the instrumental numbers. All are very technical players, hitting every note, and staying together in rigid time. They received a huge standing ovation.
If there was one moment from the entire festival that blew all of the others away it was the Nickel Creek set on Friday night. This band, lead by mandolin prodigy Chris Thile has been on the bluegrass scene for a number of years. Chris has been releasing solo albums since he was about nine years old. Four years ago he teamed up with Fiddle player Sara Watkins and her guitar playing brother Sean. They have been playing the festival circuit and making a name for themselves. But it was Friday’s set that launched them into the big time. The band in effect announced their arrival as a major act that is here to stay with a scorching set. They played many songs off their self-titled album which has been re-released by Sugar Hill with new cover art. Chris Thile is the next Sam Bush for the Mandolin. He can play fast and furious bluegrass licks as well as delicate compositions and even classical numbers. Sara Watkins has a sweet high voice and can play a mean fiddle. Her brother Sean played delicate and highly intricate solos on guitar. I’m not the only one impressed by Chris and his band. Sam Bush and David Grisman both commented during the weekend how much they liked Chris’ playing and compositions.
Throughout Friday’s set, Chris seemed very excited thanking the crowd for coming and pointing out that this was the band’s first Merlefest appearance on the main stage at night. One thing that strikes me about Nickel Creek is the major crossover potential of their music. While rooted in bluegrass much of their music is more contemporary and would fit in on some FM radio stations. They have a sound similar to Alison Krauss that bluegrass fans love and yet has the power to draw in others not as familiar with the genre. There are one or two things Chris still needs to work on. At twenty years old, he still carries and “aw, shucks” stage presence and needs to spend more time playing the mandolin and less time telling long-winded stories before every song. But I guess that’s the excitement of being a rising star and having folks listen to you when you speak. Nickel Creek will continue to improve and become a mainstay of contemporary bluegrass music.
Next on the cabin stage Bela Fleck came out and entertained the crowd with solo banjo pieces. One song morphed into the Vince Guaraldi’s Peanuts theme before fading back into the original melody. Next on the main stage was Rhonda Vincent and the Rage. Rhonda picked up IBMA’s female vocalist of the year last year and has been recording bluegrass albums for many years. Her band is a collection of talented instrumentalists her voice is very powerful. However I took a break during her set and only caught the last few numbers. I came back just in time to see… Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas!
This mini-set was also one of the highlights of the entire weekend. These two have recorded together on many different projects and are often included in the All-star jams. With Sam’s clear voice and Jerry’s devilish dobro playing, they played a masterful version of “Girl from the North Country.” Next was “Slipstream” a fast and loose instrumental from Bela’s album “Drive”. Whenever these two get together you are guaranteed to hear a “Sailing ShoesàCrossroad,” which is exactly what came next. By this time, both were sweating, rocking back and forth on their feet, giving it everything they had. It’s amazing how much sound, energy and complex acoustics these two produce with just a mandolin and a dobro.
Friday night’s show closer was the John Cowan Band. John was the bass player with New Grass Revival know for his high soaring vocals. He spent time with the Sam Bush Band and has recently gone out on his own. The band plays a style of music that resembles rock and roll more than anything else. While in New Grass Revival, John Cowan would write a few of the songs and sing the high harmonies in collaboration with other members. Now that he is out on his own, his style is no longer kept “in check” by the other band members. He is free to wail on stage at will. Unfortunately the result is slightly cheesy, over the top rock and roll. After a long set I opted for my sleeping bag rather than sticking around for the encore.
Hot, Hot, Hot! And I’m not just referring to the music. Saturday brought more clear skies and hot sun. Hats and gobs of sunblock are always a good idea at festivals. The irony is that this was the first year at Merlefest in ages that it didn’t pour down rain at least once. The crowds really started to pick up on Saturday. There were kids everywhere and I spotted at least two or three bus loads from local middle and high schools on field trips. I wish that my school had field trips Merlefest growing up! In addition to the folks who come and camp out for the whole festival, there is a very high proportion of people who come for just the day. The nice weather drew thousands of these day trippers and the festival was alive with music-lovers everywhere.
A quick word about the sound and stage announcers. One important aspect of Merlefest is the sound. The main Watson stage always has excellent sound. The two towers on either side are sufficient to cover the entire area so that you can hear each musician even from the food tents at the very back of the field. The other stages vary. While the sound on the Hillside stage is normally excellent, the Hillside Jam with Ricky Skaggs and Tony Rice experienced some sound difficulties at the beginning of their set. On other stages like the Creekside, familiar calls of “More fiddle!” and “I can’t hear the mandolin in the monitors,” were abundant, but sometimes it’s hard to tell if it really is the sound guy’s fault of just finicky musicians. Overall the sound was great and there were very few shows that suffered from technical difficulties.
The MC’s job is simply to introduce the next act, mention a few sponsors, and remind folks about wearing sunscreen, drinking lots of water on hot days, etc. The MC’s this year were all disk jockeys from local radio stations as opposed to the long-time volunteers who normally assume those duties. For me there was something lost in the slick sounding radio voices reeling off long lists of sponsors. It seemed impersonal and too polished. I didn’t think it jibed with the folksy atmosphere.
The first stop of the day was the “Mando Mania” on the Creekside stage. Chris Thile was back on stage blazing away and taking center stage with a very tender original composition he had written about giving flowers to a girl he met in France. Even David Grisman praised the youngster’s songwriting ability. Sam Bush was next with a song called “Brilliancy” with Chris playing harmony mandolin. David Grisman did “Pneumonia” from his very first Grisman Quintet album. Also joining them on stage was Mike Compton. Mike is an excellent mandolin player who was recently featured on the “O, Brother Where Art Thou?” Soundtrack. The set was very informal and they fielded many questions from the audience. Grisman used the opportunity to promote his Acoustic Disk record label and his new line of special mandolin picks. One the last few tunes all four mandolins joined in making the Creekside ring with that high lonesome sound.
I hiked up the hill to the Walker Center next to catch yet another set of Nickel Creek. There seems to be a collective awakening among the fans to the talent that Nickel Creek is becoming, because the indoor auditorium was absolutely packed to capacity. It was a major effort for me to even get in to see the show. The number of people turned away at the door could have filled the auditorium twice over. The set was similar to the one they played on the main stage the night before but brilliant none the less. At times their jams would almost sound like the Grisman Quintet. I especially noticed Chris’ lightning quick grace notes that he would throw in on the fancy licks. One popular song was “The Fox” from their self-titled release. Again Chris couldn’t quite contain his excitement at the huge crowd and the enthusiasm in the room. It was almost a feedback loop that threatened to go out of control with the crowd pumping him up and his energetic playing feeding right back into the crowd. Chris joked on stage about once being introduced as “Grammy-losing artists Nickel Creek” They were nominated for best bluegrass album of the year and lost to Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow.” They were also nominated for best country instrumental which seemed to perplex the band as they don’t consider themselves country. It’s very hard to put many of the Merlefest artists into any specific category as Americana music can absorb so many different influences and yet still remaining true to its roots.
The Americana stage was next event circled on my schedule where Jerry Douglas took the stage. Jerry is probably the most sought after collaborator in Nashville today. His signature Dobro appear on a wide variety of projects, Bela Fleck’s Bluegrass Sessions and most recently Dolly Parton’s “Little Sparrow,” and he has produced a number of albums for other artists. His trio included Victor Krauss on bass, a highly requested studio musician, and Brian Sutton on guitar. Flux played fast and furious on his original “Pushed Too Far.” Brian Sutton plays very quick solos and often played harmony solos to Jerry’s lead lines. Every time I turned around this year there was Jerry Douglas on stage. He leant a helping dobro wherever he could.
Not as omnipresent as in recent years was Tim O’Brien. “Songs from the Mountain” was next on the Cabin stage. He performed with Dirk Powell and John Hermann. “Songs from the Mountain” is an original collection of songs done in the style and feel of old-timey Civil War music. All songs relate in some way to the best-selling book Cold Mountain. Hermann played excellent clawhammer banjo; an older style without fingerpicks that incorporates strumming as well.
Next on the Watson stage was Merlefest favorite the David Grisman Quintet. DGQ has been playing with various lineups since the early 1970’s. The music is so unique they had to create a new genre for it called “Dawg music.” Grisman blends elements of bluegrass with jazz and many world music influences. In fact one of his pieces wouldn’t sound all that out of place on the Buena Vista Social Club project from Cuba. The set was rich with extended Dawg jams and a Spanish flamenco feel. He played a few tunes from his very first DGQ album as well as later songs such as “Chili Dog.” The crowd gave him a standing ovation and called raucously for an encore.
After a break for dinner, the long awaited Dolly Parton hit the stage! I have never seen Dolly live before and was very impressed at what a genuine entertainer she is. She bantered with the audience extensively and seemed to be speaking from the heart. Having released two bluegrass albums in the past few years she was honored to be invited to Merlefest and repeatedly thanked the audience for accepting her as a valid bluegrass artist. Judging by the applause, everyone was very happy to have her there. Dolly selected and all-star lineup of bluegrass musicians to assist her with her albums and many were on stage with her that night. Chris Thile was once again the subject of a few jokes when Dolly said something to the effect of he may be a bit young to drive a car “But I’ll bet he’s really good in a car parked somewhere!” Dolly played a number of her songs off the bluegrass albums and a surprise song that was a huge hit for her about 30 years ago called “Tennessee Mountain Home” The performance felt very casual and off-the-cuff. She was bouncing around the stage telling stories and singing her heart out. I don’t know if she’s a perfectionist normally, but this night she went so far as to do one song twice because she “kept screwing up” on the first one. Another tune kicked off and she immediately turned around and said “Hey, I can’t pick that fast!” While everyone laughed she actually turned and wiggled her famous chest at the camera. There was a look of surprise and ‘did she just do that!?’ on everyone’s face. I was very impressed by Dolly. She has one of the longest running and most successful careers in the music industry. She seems a genuine person who likes to sing and entertain. I enjoyed the informal feeling of her show and appreciated that she really tried to connect with the audience. It also says a lot that she stopped her show in the middle to make a “lost child” announcement. At the close of the show she had Doc Watson join her on stage to pick a few tunes. Dolly Parton is a true American icon.
And now for something completely different.... Next on the Watson stage was the king of festivals, Sam Bush. Sam has been blending rock and roll with bluegrass since his New Grass Revival days. He has a string of successful recordings and is a regular and every major festival. His newest lineup features Larry Amatneek who was in the original David Grisman Quintet, on percussion and drums. Sam is also a veteran entertainer. The crowd was in a bit of a lull after Dolly Parton and he revitalized everyone with his energy and gift of gab. Sam’s set featured many new songs and old favorites like “Same Old River” and “Travelin’ in the North Country Fair.” That was the second time I’d heard him play that, but luckily the entire festival had very few repeats. I didn’t hear “Nine Pound Hammer” six times. Nobody outdoes Sam when it comes to stage presence. He rocks as hard as anyone, flailing on his mandolin and belting out the words at top volume. It’s amazing that he doesn’t get a horse voice every once in a while.
After Sam, I had to leave to meet friends who were just arriving. I heard in the campground later that Donna the Buffalo did a few rocking songs, but were shut down because the festival had run so late and organizers wanted to get the midnight jam started. The Midnight jam is a Merlefest tradition. All the major acts play an all-star jam that lasts well into the night. It is the only show at the festival that costs extra to see due to the small theater size. I’ve always wanted to go, but after a full day of music I was too tapped out. The Midnight starting time of the jam can work to your advantage, as many folks got free tickets from those who had purchased them but were ready to head home.
After a long day of music people at the campgrounds usually gear up for more as informal pickin’ sessions spring up wherever there are instruments. Groups of friends and random strangers get together and play old favorites around bonfires until the wee hours of the morning. I wandered around listening to the various groups and saw smiling faces and tapping toes everywhere. At one stop the fellows playing sounded fantastic, but were too good to be strangers playing together for the first time . Upon closer examination I learned it was “Cook County Bluegrass,” a local band from Richmond, Virginia who enjoy festivals so much they come as a group every year. Sometimes the campfire pickin’ can rival that of the on-stage performers.
Sunday, like Thursday, the crowds thin out and it’s possible to get up close to see your favorite acts. Arrive at most any stage but the main stage fifteen minutes early and you are guaranteed to get a great seat up front. Many folks bring cameras to capture their favorite stars.
I just had to return to the Creekside stage once more for Nickel Creek, this time joined by Dan Tyminski. Dan recently starred in “O’ Brother Where Art Thou?” as the singing voice of George Clooney. Sure enough the crowd was treated to a rip-roaring version of “Man of Constant Sorrow.” The Nickel Creek song “Ode To a Butterfly” was another high point of the performance.
On to the Americana stage where Jerry Douglas did a solo set with Victor Krauss and Brian Sutton. Jerry focused on his solo Dobro material, doing “Pushed Too Far” and a great piece called “For Those Who’ve Gone Clear.” This is a mournful ode that appeared on his most recent solo release “Restless on the Farm.”
Merlefest also looks out for their younger patrons. There are plenty of activities to keep small children entertained. There is even a petting zoo on site. I wandered over the “Little Pickers Tent” a small stage set aside for kids to see Doc Watson himself play with Jack Lawrence. The first three rows were filled with youngsters and ankle-biters alike; some got up for a little impromptu dancing. Doc played lots of the funny story type songs for the kids. They had titles like “Froggie Went A’courtin’” and “Blue-Eyed Jane.” Jack Lawrence really shined on the instrumentals “Blackberry Blossom,” and “Shady Grove.” His solos are so smooth and buttery. His hands fly up and down the neck of the guitar and manage to hit every single note in between. According to the stage manager it was the biggest crowd they’d had all day.
The highlight of my Sunday was Donna the Buffalo with Peter Werenick. This set was at the Dance Stage, so there were loads of Donna fans who danced up a storm. Dr. Banjo himself added the blazing licks to accompany Donna’s groove. There is almost a Louisiana swampgrass feel to the music which probably comes from the accordion featured on most songs. The set went on for some time with all of the musicians taking turns to solo.
Bluegrass legend Earl Scruggs played an evening set on the main Watson stage. Flatt and Scruggs were extremely influential and wrote many songs that have become “standards” in the bluegrass repertoire. Earl can still pick on the banjo, tearing through “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Doc Watson came out and joined him for a few songs off a 1960’s album they collaborated on called “Strictly Instrumental.” The Sunday shows often feature an older celebrated act. Last year John Hartford was honored for his contribution to the genre, and there was a similar sense of awe and appreciation for those watching Earl.
The festival came to a close with Bluegrass Reunion, a set with most members of the seminal hippie-grass band “Old and In the Way.” Although they were only together as a group for nine months in 1973, they exposed a generation of new listeners to traditional bluegrass and their own brand of newgrass. The reunion featured Peter Rowan, the singer/guitarist who wrote many of the band’s originals. David Grisman on Mandolin, who had already become well known for his own ‘Dawg’ music. And Vassar Clements, an exceptional bluegrass fiddler. On banjo, playing in the late Jerry Garcia’s spot was Herb Pendersen. And on bass filling in for John Kahn was a woman who I’ve seen play in Peter Rowan’s band many times. The crowd that stuck around until the end was treated to a set consisting of older bluegrass numbers, and the “Old and In the Way” hits like “Land of the Navaho” and “Midnight Moonlight.”
Four days, twelve stages, around 78 performers, and thousands of music lovers make Merlefest the perfect start to your festival season. This year was the 14th annual and preparations for next year are already underway. So pack up the tent and the sunscreen and I’ll see you next year.