Wilkesboro, NC | April 25-28, 2002
For one weekend a year the hills of North Carolina are transformed into the bluegrass center of the universe. Artists and fans come out of winter hibernation for the unofficial kickoff to festival season. The siren song that lures all music lovers is Doc Watson’s MerleFest. This year was something special, celebrating 15 years of fantastic music and loyal fans.
Begun as a tribute to Doc’s late son Merle, the festival has grown from a small gathering into a four-day event. Helped by cool weather and no rain, this year’s festival broke last year’s total attendance record of 77,000 fans. The campus of Wilkes Community College is an excellent site. It is large enough to accommodate the many stages with little sound overlap, yet small enough to walk from one stage to another. The sheer amount of music is mind-boggling and one person cannot possibly see it all. Thus what follows is only a sampling of the many artists and wonders of MerleFest.
The festival opened around 2:00 pm, providing a great opportunity to see plenty of music up close and personal. Tim O’Brien performed on the main stage with his band from The Crossing album. Tim played a folksy Celtic sounding set. The congas, accordion, and twin recorders added a world music texture.
After many years, the organizers have the logistics down to a science. They rely on a large army of volunteers; most have worked at the festival for a long time. When one takes into account all of the details - ferrying artists around to the stages, coordinating vendors, and contracting out the job of cleaning porta-potties - it’s amazing everything goes off without a hitch. This year there were a few noticeable additions: a larger vendor area, more direction signs to the stages, and more security. Remember that MerleFest is a family festival: there is no alcohol allowed on the grounds. Prepare to have your cooler searched on the way in. Thankfully this does not apply to the various campgrounds, which are not run by MerleFest.
Alison Brown took the stage with her Quintet and fired up a set of new-age banjo music. The former Wall Street broker - now banjo star and president of Compass records - is always accompanied by some of the most talented musicians around. Her piano player, John R. Burr, is very versatile, playing jazz piano on numbers like “My favorite Marsha,” and then sliding easily into more newgrass sounding tunes such as “Leaving Cottondale.” Upon hearing John for the first time, Doc Watson said to Alison, “that boy picks a fine piano.” After the Freddy Neil cover “Everybody’s Talking” Alison announced that she was “picking for two.” Judging from the musical family – the father is Gary West, the Quintet’s bass player – it’s a safe bet the new baby will be musically inclined.
Between sets on the main Watson stage there were mini-sets on the Cabin stage. Crowd favorites the Kruger Brothers performed a blistering set including “I Know You Rider” and “Black Mountain Rag.” These brothers play fast and furious bluegrass with technical precision and remarkably southern sounding vocals, despite their Swiss origin. They are always fun and entertaining.
New at the festival this year was Pinmonkey. They took the main stage Thursday night with a blend of fast country, boogie, and bluegrass music. Along with a few pop covers, they played many of their own selections. In contrast to most of the festival, this group was very electric with a driving rock beat. The music was good to dance to, but at times a little too over-the-top and twangy.
John Cowan closed out the evening with a set on the Watson stage. Since leaving the Sam Bush band in 2000, John has toured heavily with his own band and gained popularity with fans. Having recently seen his act and knowing his pop-star theatrical tendencies, I listened to his soaring vocals on the way out to the shuttle bus.
A Place to Stay
Lodging for MerleFest can be tricky. If you prefer hotels, motels, or bed & breakfast places, book early. Say, a year in advance. No kidding, these slots fill up quickly. The campgrounds are where all the action takes place. Many groups use MerleFest as a reunion of sorts, so large bonfires surrounded by tent villages are not uncommon. There are also plenty of late-night picking sessions where musicians of all talent levels get together for some free-spirited jamming.
This year I stayed at the Wilkesboro Fire Department campground. Despite being located by the water treatment plant, this is an excellent place to stay. The staff is very friendly and will go out of their way to ensure you have a pleasant stay. There are shuttles to the festival, and a new washhouse. The best perk is the free firewood. The River’s Edge campground is always a popular one. Located closest to the festival, it fills up quickly and is know for rowdy all-night parties. While I enjoyed celebrating at River’s Edge last year, I didn’t miss the constant rumbling of ATV patrols rolling by my tent in the middle of the night.
Friday the weather was warm and breezy with the sun poking out through the clouds occasionally. There are a total of 14 different stages at MerleFest. This means that at any given time there are half a dozen different artists to see. This takes a bit of planning. I spotted many fans on the lawn conferring with pen in hand, marking their schedules for optimum efficiency. If there is one act that you particularly want to see up close, it is a good idea to arrive early, during the previous set to secure a good seat.
However, it is possible to take the exact opposite approach as well. Try wandering around at will, and see where the music takes you. You are bound to catch some amazing performances and probably a few artists you’ve never heard before. There are good sight lines and ample room at most stages to drift in and out, even if you are a few minutes late. I have heard some say that MerleFest is too much and that it’s impossible to see everything. While technically true, over the course of the weekend a given artist will play on at least three different stages. If schedule conflicts arise, there are opportunities to see them again.
The festival atmosphere was in the air Friday morning as things got started. Railroad Earth (more on them later) was in the middle of a set at the dance stage as I arrived. There was a colorful band of jugglers, toddlers, and hula-hoopers frolicking on the lawn. The dance stage is one of the hidden gems of the festival. It is the most interactive stage and features the best musicians playing music exclusively for your dancing pleasure. There is usually a leader who will show the crowd the steps to a selected dance, the waltz, the two-step, or “noodle-dancing” in Railroad Earth’s case. This caused much laughter, as noodle dancing is more a free form of expression rather than structured dance steps. Later in the day, the Calypso dance session was packed to overflowing. Sons of Steel, an energetic young group, were up on the stage pounding away on their steel drums. The blend of rock, reggae, and traditional island music sent the dancers into a frenzy. Even the band was constantly in motion jumping up and down as they wailed on the drums.
New and Unexpected
While there are many big name acts to see, one of the joys of MerleFest is catching new artists or discovering a band for the first time. I wandered over to the Austin stage and watched most of the songwriting contest. Out of hundreds of submissions, three finalists performed for each category before a distinguished panel of judges. It was great to see the performers, both nervous and eager, getting the chance to strut their stuff on a MerleFest stage. All three numbers in the bluegrass category were especially strong.
Another unexpected treat this year was the hammer dulcimer session at the Traditional stage. Two old mountain men, looking the part, strummed their dulcimers eliciting a delicate high-pitched sound with a single melody line played out on the frets. At one point they brought out an old wooden box covered with eye screws and strings. It was a Tennessee Music Box. A pre-Civil War instrument that literally sounded like stringed bagpipes. Drawing a regular fiddle bow over the stings created an ancient drone sound evoking the Scottish and Welsh influences in Appalachian music.
Walking through the festival, I saw Dobro legend Tut Taylor. Not a minute later, Doc Watson passed by riding in a golf cart. Despite the size of the festival, artists at MerleFest are very accessible. Most can be found hanging out talking to fans and giving autographs before or after a set on one of the side stages. I even spied Tony Rice in his early 1990s black Ford Mustang.
The Hillside stage is the place to be. Every year the most outrageous jam sessions happen here and the best new talent is featured. This year was no exception. Railroad Earth played Friday to a very enthusiastic crowd. Railroad Earth materialized only last year, but quickly generated a buzz in the music scene. With a full acoustic sound, these guys play hard-driving newgrass. Their original songs are epic and well written. The fiddle player is especially animated in concert. He bounced around, sawing like mad on the fiddle, his curly hair flying in every direction. The crowd was also animated, dancing and swaying to every note.
No one had a chance to rest because Nickel Creek was next. They're the closest thing bluegrass has to pop stars; this band has exploded in popularity, and they were the talk of the festival last year. After a gold record and a year of music videos, they created a minor media circus. A full camera crew followed Chris Thile wherever he went. Plus there was a crew from Country Music Television filming the band. The crowd continued to grow during the set, which consisted mainly of hits from their first album.
This year the vendor area had a great mix of booths. There were handmade clothing booths, head shops, record stores and artists of all kinds: glass artists, photographers, drawings and sculpture artists, to name a few. The brightly painted wood sculptures looked like a still-life zoo set out on the lawn. A few more mundane booths were included in case you need life insurance, vinyl siding, a water purification system or a new credit card.
As the sun started to sink, the cool mountain air set in requiring a few extra layers of clothes. Spring in the foothills is unpredictable. For MerleFest you must be prepared. Bring warm layers for the cold nights, sunscreen in case of hot sun, and rain gear.
Friday Night Heavy-Hitters
I headed back to the main stage for Friday night’s lineup of heavy-hitters. Earl Scruggs was tearing up “Salty Dog” on his five-string banjo. One half of the legendary Flatt & Scruggs, Earl wrote many of the bluegrass standard played today. Albert Lee joined him on guitar. A dapper English gentleman, Albert plays a lightning fast electric guitar country style. The best song of the set was a roaring bluegrass version of “Long Black Veil.”
How do you know festival season has officially started? The first time you hear Sam Bush greet you with “Evening music lovers.” The bluegrass rock star summed up the crowd sentiment, saying, “We’ve been waiting all winter for this.” Sam played a couple of new songs mixed in with “Eight more miles from Louisville” and a fantastic cover of Kool and the Gang’s “Celebrate.” Sam’s energy is amazing. Having just turned 50, he can still rock. Bluegrass is one genre where getting older is a good thing. At one point he stopped to point out the opening lyrics from “Howling at the Moon,” declaring that in these times we need to take time for love:
Take a little time for sunshine.
Take a whole lotta time for love.
Take time to praise and thank heaven up above.
Take your life as it may come, cause boy it’ll be gone soon.
Take a little time for howling at the moon.
Finishing the evening was the bluegrass rebel Peter Rowan. It’s hard to believe that his career started as a straightforward guitarist for Bill Monroe. He’s undergone many transformations since then, and has written the most well-known hippie-grass songs ever. As a part of Old and In the Way, he turned an entire generation on to the sound of bluegrass. At MerleFest Peter was joined by his latest band, Crucial Reggae. Along with a couple of newer songs, the set was mostly the same 10 or 15 Peter Rowan songs you know and love set to reggae music. Peter himself called it “Regga-billy.” Never one to shy from fashion, he was adorned in a jacket right out of Captain Kirk’s formal wear closet.
Traditionally the biggest day of the festival, Saturday saw beautiful weather and huge crowds. While the community college is an ideal site attendance has risen almost every year, so much so that the festival is outgrowing the campus. It has gotten to the point where MerleFest is actively seeking ways to limit the number of people who come. With the festival spread out over a long weekend, many choose to come for only one day. Saturday, hordes of large yellow busses discharged endless streams of kids from area schools, while families piled high with coolers and lawn chairs made their way into the festival.
Playing their first MerleFest ever, Yonder Mountain String Band performed an early set on the Hillside stage. This Colorado jamgrass group has taken bluegrass to its outer speed limits while retaining the traditional four-piece acoustic lineup (guitar, mandolin, banjo, bass). They have gained quite a following touring the country behind their second release “Town by Town.” Having fun and not taking yourself too seriously are common themes with Yonder Mountain. Their music can start out sounding traditional and then stretch into long jams, only to come back around and finish where they started. They love to joke around with each other and the audience. After the first few numbers they commented, “we’re just warming up the crowd for what we really do.” During the next song, Darol Anger crashes the stage, sneaking up and then jumping into the song with a wildly spastic solo. He then disappears as quickly as he arrived. Yonder Mountain took it all in stride laughing the entire time. When the band has a good time, so does the audience, and these guys are infectious.
During the afternoon there were many small intimate shows, allowing the musicians a little more freedom to take requests and play whatever was on their mind. Mike Marshall and Darol Anger are the mad scientists of their genre... if they even have a genre. These two have been working closely in the past few years creating albums that defy classification. Imagine wild jazz fiddle combined with Latin flavored mandolin, throw in classical music and original compositions, add a bit of psychedelia and you’re only getting a taste of what these guys can do. They played mostly originals, highlighting their wide range of styles. Mike also plays many different instruments and worked through just about all of them during the set.
Next up to play with Mike Marshall was Chris Thile. Chris described himself and Mike as “mando soulmates.” The sentiment was real and the connection between the two was palpable. Duo mandolin has a beautiful sound, especially listening to them bounce off each other as one played the melody and the other came up with matching harmonies. The selections ranged from 1940s Brazilian compositions to original works in progress. Chris said they were working on an album together, which should be out by early fall.
MerleFest is a family festival and provides plenty of entertainment for kids. They have their own stage, the “Little Picker’s Tent,” where many of the big names come to play for the very little crowd. The art tent was very popular. The kids made large banners and hung them up for display. Another popular attraction was the “moon bounce,” one of those inflatable castles where you literally bounce off the walls (sorry, kids only). The coolest activity was a rock wall where kids could get a taste of rock climbing complete with harnesses, ropes, and responsible adults doing the belay. Many parents spoke highly of the way MerleFest looks after their youngest fans.
One of the highlights of the afternoon was Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings performing on the Creekside stage. These two unassuming artists are arguably the best songwriting team in Nashville today. Their music is simple and rich with a sound that is aged beyond its years. The set was billed as the “Rawlings style guitar workshop.” Dave said he wasn’t quite sure what that meant and took questions from the audience. What resulted was a rare look into the inner workings of their songwriting. Dave described how they would arrange songs, experimenting with different vocal and harmony lines until they found a pairing that “didn’t sound horrible.” Referencing Gillian’s sparse rhythm guitar, Dave explained how much he liked playing lead with so much room to maneuver within the song. As an example, they played “One More Dollar” off the Revival album. When a question about lyrics arose, Gillian summed up their feelings: “We want you to be in the song, experiencing it, not thinking about it. When you hear a line and think ‘what a great lyric,’ you click out and aren’t experiencing it.” In case anyone is curious, Dave Rawlings plays a 1935 Epiphone Olympia with no center sound hole and a custom bridge.
Late in the day, one of the stage announcers mentioned that Doc Watson officially retired ten years ago. If so, he’s the busiest retiree in show business. Doc was all over MerleFest, playing on just about every stage and with many of his old-time friends. His voice is still strong and true, and his guitar picking is marvelous. One look at his tour schedule shows that Doc is in for a busy summer, appearing in Maryland, Virginia, Colorado (at the Rockygrass festival) and New York’s Lincoln Center. Doc calls his music “tradition plus.” Others call it roots music or Americana. Regardless of what you call it, Doc’s blend of folk, blues, bluegrass, old-time and gospel spans generations and still inspires musicians today. He remains the spiritual force behind MerleFest.
Saturday Night’s Big Shows
This being the fifteenth year for MerleFest, just about everyone gathered on the main stage for an anniversary jam. As jams go, this one was very structured. Everyone got a turn in the spotlight. John Cowan sounded great on a soulful slow number and Chris Thile also played a few fancy licks. At one point the very impressive fiddle lineup included Alison Krauss, Darol Anger and Sara Watkins. The finale was very emotional, with Earl Scruggs joining Doc Watson center stage for “Amazing Grace.”
Alison Krauss and Union Station. Alison’s hit records during the early 1990s introduced a vast number of people to bluegrass. With her tender ballads and angelic voice, she casts a spell on her audiences. Backed by Union Station, who doubled as the voices of the Soggy Bottom Boys in O Brother Where Art Thou?, Alison played many songs from her latest album New Favorites, which picked up this year’s Grammy award in the bluegrass category. It was difficult to hear her set in the back. Everything up to that point and again thereafter sounded fine. I don’t believe it was a problem with the sound system; Alison just plays quiet bluegrass. She brought out Jerry Douglas, who is a semi-regular with her band. His graceful Dobro blended with her voice perfectly.
Not many bands can follow Alison, but her protégé Nickel Creek is always ready to step it up anytime. They came out to warm cheers from the audience. Again the media circus was in full effect. WUNC-TV (Chapel Hill, NC) was filming all of Saturday night’s acts. The large boom camera swinging around in front of the stage was rather distracting. XM Satellite Radio was also there broadcasting a bit more unobtrusively. Nickel Creek has grown since they stole the festival last year. They are more poised on stage on have cut back on the chatter. However they have been playing much of the same material for over a year. Even the songs they announced as “new” are familiar to anyone who saw them in the past year on tour. Granted, they’ve all been busy with solo albums and side projects, but it is time for some new material. Their next release is scheduled for later this summer. There was one arrangement I hadn’t heard before. The band played a wild “Ode to a Butterfly > Lithium > Subterranean Homesick Blues > Ode to a Butterfly.” Chris Thile has amazing stage presence. He is genuinely excited about his music. A friend who was in the front row stated that Chris “sings with his whole body.” He communicates through his mandolin and his body language just as well as his singing.
One of the best aspects of the festival is the official MerleFest radio station. The station broadcasts live from the main Watson stage all day. This is great for when you are hanging out at the campground and don’t want to miss what’s going on: tune into 94.7 FM and you are front row. The station is on 24 hours and re-broadcasts earlier sets. After we returned to the campground on Saturday, MerleFest radio was blasting Friday night’s Sam Bush set. What a way to end the day.
The last day of the festival is always more quiet, but there was still plenty of things going on. MerleFest is more than just watching people play music. There are picking tents were anyone can bring their instrument and jam as well as workshops for the more serious-minded. One that I’m sorry I missed was Alison Brown’s seminar “How to start a record company.” Not that I plan to start one just yet, but it would be a great lesson in how to beat the system.
The food was terrific. There were two tents of vendors, most of them local organizations such as the Boy Scouts, churches, schools, athletic teams and even the Jaycees. Most were doing the cooking onsite resulting in delicious hot-off-the-grill turkey legs, pulled pork BBQ and fresh corn. For vegetarians, the Thai food booth was the best bet with a big selection of vegetable and rice combinations.
For something a little different, Etta Baker’s set was perfect. Etta is a North Carolina native who’s been fingerpicking the blues for over eighty years. Her slow style is very smooth and she played almost effortlessly. Larry Keel, one of today’s best flatpickers, played a set on the Americana stage with Curtis Burch. These two have been constant collaborators over the last few years and announced they had just finished working on a new album. Larry has a great husky voice, perfect for his own Appalachian front-porch style music. The music didn’t end until 7:30 that evening, but by mid-afternoon I had to get on the road. On the way out, I heard Peter Rowan’s yodeling backed by the slick guitar work of Tony Rice.
MerleFest is not just a festival with all the top names in bluegrass. It is a major event and a wicked good time. You can experience great music, good friends, good food, and a jovial atmosphere. It is the unofficial kickoff to festival season, and packs as much music as possible into one festival. Fifteen years is impressive for anything in the music world; here’s looking forward to many more.
JamBase | Southeast
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