MerleFest | Wilkes Community College | Wilkesboro, NC | April 24th - 27th, 2003

With 13 stages and 100 artists, MerleFest is a musical family reunion, the unofficial kickoff to festival season, and a whole lot of fun. Bela Fleck and the Flecktones, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, the Del McCoury Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and Hot Rize headlined a weekend so full of music, it was literally impossible to hear it all. But that didn’t stop anybody from trying.

Last year’s record attendance of 78,000 sparked some much-needed improvements at Wilkes Community College, where the festival is held. Some of the tents on the main field were moved back to allow more room for blankets and chairs and vendors were reduced by almost half. But the biggest improvement was a second row of speakers in the field, carrying the sound all the way to the back.

The scheduling seemed better this year as well. Thursday was a full day of music, starting early with Ralph Stanley and running into the night with Donna the Buffalo. Sunday wound up with two of the biggest acts, Hot Rize and Emmylou Harris, which had been saved for last. This meant people stayed at the festival until the end. It also meant Thursday and Sunday were full of excellent music, with thinner crowds than Friday and Saturday.

This was the year of Country and Western music at MerleFest. There was plenty of that Texas twang by Asleep at the Wheel, Jimmy Dale Gilmore, and the Rowan Brothers. This was also the year of the banjo thanks to Ralph Stanley, Tony Trischka and Bela Fleck.


There’s no better way to kick off the festival season than with Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys. Still going strong well into his ‘70s, Stanley is enjoying some of the greatest success in his career. He sings from the soul, emotional and immediate, with the powerful leads and harmonies which define that high lonesome sound. The crowd cheered for the old Stanley Brothers classics such as “Rank Stranger” and “Sitting on Top of the World.” While he doesn’t play as often anymore, Stanley even picked up the banjo for a few numbers. As one of the few remaining founders of bluegrass music, he is finally getting the recognition he deserves.

Between acts on the main Watson stage, attention focused on the smaller cabin stage just a few yards to stage right. Here artists played 20-30 minutes while the crew set up gear on the main stage. John McEuen, from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, came out for a set of original music and a few traditional numbers on guitar and banjo. He played one particularly beautiful composition in a drop “D” tuning written specially for a recent film score.

The music shifted into overdrive with Asleep at the Wheel, a band that helped popularize western swing in the late ‘70s. This is the kind of music you’d hear in a good honky-tonk country bar. At six feet plus topped with a ten-gallon hat, lead singer Ray Benson made an imposing figure with his incredibly low vocal range. The lineup featured steel guitar, a drum kit, and even a saxophone. The highlight was a smoking version of “Hot Rod Lincoln.”

Just when things were getting too electric, the masters of progressive banjo – Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka – came out to save the day. While both would naturally defer to Earl Scruggs, you won’t see Scruggs ripping jazz licks in the middle of “John Hardy.” Seated on the stage with just their banjos, Fleck and Trischka played some of their own compositions and a Beatles medley. They meshed beautifully and created a blizzard of banjo sound. The evening’s best party trick was Fleck operating as the banjo’s right hand and Trischka as the left - surely a feat of timing and precision.

Closing out the evening on the main stage was the world’s only Cajun roots jamband, Donna the Buffalo. Fiddle player Tara Nevins sang with passion and also picked up a guitar and washboard during the set. One reason this band has been going strong since the late 1980s is their infectious dancin’ grooves incorporating hints of zydeco and reggae in their music, which help to get your feet moving. Many of their songs have a “one world, one love” feel. Donna the Buffalo strives to make the world a better place through music, and at MerleFest, the band succeeded.


Often overlooked are the MerleFest instrument competitions. Here some of the best up-and-coming pickers compete for prize money and – more importantly – recognition. This year’s highlight was the banjo contest. More than twenty pickers from Georgia, Michigan, Virginia, and North Carolina competed. The winner was Ryan Cavanaugh of Spacestation Integration, who dazzled the judges with his mastery on the five-string. Cavanaugh regularly pushes the envelope with his style of progressive banjo, but he is equally at home playing traditional bluegrass. His precision with the three-fingered Scruggs-style banjo playing impressed the judges, but it was the uniquely Spacestation licks that set him apart. The judges included Dr. Banjo himself, Pete Wernick. In the final round, contestants had to perform a song selected for them only minutes before. Cavanaugh made it look easy, improvising a great solo to take home the first place prize, a new Gibson Earl Scruggs model banjo. For the second year in a row, second place went to Old School Freight Train’s banjo picker, Ben Krakauer.

Up on the main stage were Tony Rice & Peter Rowan. Peter Rowan has spent time with Bill Monroe, Old and In the Way, and as a solo artist. Much of his material has a cowboy feel and there was plenty of yodeling. Tony Rice maintained a low profile at MerleFest this year. He played well, with slick polished solos, but was not ubiquitous as in years past. Backing up Rice and Rowan were Billy and Bryn Bright. This husband and wife team is gaining recognition with a recently released solo record. Bryn holds things down on bass, while Billy plays mandolin.

The big event Friday afternoon was the Vassar Clements’s 75th Birthday Jam. One of bluegrass’s last elder statesmen, Clements also began his career with Bill Monroe. Later he was part of the influential newgrass movement, spending time with John Hartford in the Aereoplane band and with Old and in the Way. The Birthday Jam had an all-start lineup which included Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and Peter Rowan. Vassar Clements wore a big smile most of the set and really seemed to enjoy the attention. The rest of the gang on stage played their hearts out and complemented Clements as a major influence in their music. The selections ran from Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky” to John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereoplane,” to some of Clements’s own hillbilly jazz. Sam Bush led the audience in singing “Happy Birthday.” The atmosphere was loose, but the playing was tight.

A steady drizzle set in Friday afternoon, making the indoor Walker Center a popular place to be. First up was the Laura Love Band. Love isn’t afraid to speak her mind and she sang more relevant protest songs in one set than other artists have in decades. This girl’s got sass, spunk, and funk. Highlights included a love letter to George Bush, bluntly entitled “I Want You Gone,” “Sativa,” a song about her favorite garden weed, and a super-funky version of Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground.” The band’s music can be described as power-folk. Love’s beautiful voice shone through on “Wayfaring Stranger” and she also took a turn at yodeling. The Walker Center Crowd was very supportive and wouldn’t leave without an encore.

Darrell Scott is today’s most successful songwriter in Nashville. He wrote the latest Dixie Chicks single, “Long Time Gone,” and stars such as Garth Brooks and Travis Tritt have included Scott’s songs on their albums. His songs are well-crafted stories, full of joy and pain. He delivers them with heartfelt emotion as he did here with his version of “You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive.” Many songs he played came from his newest album, Theater of the Unheard. Fiddle player Casey Driessen (Tim O’Brien) and saxophone/woodwind expert Jeff Coffin (Flecktones) joined Scott onstage for a few songs. “When No One’s Around > Will the Circle Be Unbroken” finished the set.

As evening approached, the rain let up and members of “The Herd” could be seen stampeding over to the dance tent for another set of Donna the Buffalo. Originally Bruce Hornsby was scheduled to appear at MerleFest, but he had to back out a few months ago due to “family obligations.” In his place (and in keeping with the twang theme this year) was one of Texas’s best-known songwriters, Jimmy Dale Gilmore. Gilmore, a Lubbock, Texas singer/songwriter, was part of the legendary Flatlanders and performed a set of his latest material. His wiry frame belies the amount of passion within, and his MerleFest songs told of hard luck, hard times, and hope. Gilmore sounds a bit like Willie Nelson, and both certainly hail from the “hard times” school of songwriting.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band stormed the main stage with electric guitars and country boogie music. Their latest release, Will the Circle Be Unbroken Vol. 3, once again brought out the top bluegrass musicians to record classic songs - Dirt Band style. With John McEuen back in the fold after a prolonged absence, the lineup featured four out of the five original members. This set was full-tilt boogie covering much of their back catalog. They invited Doc Watson to come out to play, much to the delight of the crowd.

Making a triumphant return to MerleFest, Bela Fleck and the Flecktones dazzled the crowd with fancy licks and bass tricks. The set started quietly with a melodic jam as Bela’s fingers flew over the frets. Futureman was right there beside Bela, with his fingers tapping wildly on his unique drummitar. Victor Wooten, arguably one of the best bass players around, pulled out some of his bass tricks. Jeff Coffin added to the sound with his articulate saxophone. The encore was a fantastic “Sinister Minister,” specially requested by Mama Wooten.


Saturday started with the boys from Psychograss. This newgrass supergroup is comprised of Darol Anger, David Grier, Mike Marshall, Todd Phillips, and Tony Trischka. Their mind-bending acoustic melodies often start with a simple sounding bluegrass tune and crescendo into an improvised fury. At MerleFest, they were willing to try anything - as evidenced by “New York Chimes” which somehow segued seamlessly into a “Third Stone from the Sun” jam. While each member is a star in his own right, the multi-talented Mike Marshall is the hardest workingman in bluegrass. In addition to Psychograss and his Duo album with Darol Anger, Marshall just released a mandolin CD with Nickel Creek’s Chris Thile.

The Dance Tent was a popular MerleFest spot, since it was the one of the only places dancing was encouraged. The “Clogging and Flatfoot workshop” had so many folks you could feel the floor shaking. The musicians providing the dancing soundtrack were the same ones you saw performing on the main stage.

The bluegrass finally came out of hiding Saturday afternoon with an all-star jam on the Hillside stage. Ricky Skaggs hosted with Sam Bush, Byron House, Brian Sutton, Jerry Douglas, Jim Mills, and a couple of fiddle players. Here was the music the fans had been waiting for: Sam Bush singing “Sunny Side of the Mountain,” Jim Mills tearing up traditional instrumentals on the banjo, and Ricky Skaggs picking “Little Maggie.” Brian Sutton played amazingly precise guitar solos. The set ended with everyone on stage making as much noise as possible for “Get Up John.”

What is it that makes MerleFest special? As Sam Bush pointed out, “We wait all winter in the cold to come out and celebrate in the mud.” It’s the all-star jams and the impromptu pairings. Where else can you see a set of “Mando Mania” with five of the best mandolin players in the business together on one stage? Or see a lineup like the one put together for the Vassar Clements jam on Friday? At MerleFest there is a thin line between artist and fan. Jimmy Dale Gilmore was spotted cruising around checking out sets at the Americana stage. Pete Wernick took time to jam with Ryan Cavanaugh after Ryan won the banjo contest. Tut Taylor stuck around in the picking tent to hear Laura Love’s vocal workshop.

The sun always shines through Del McCoury Band’s back door, and Saturday was no exception. Just as Del and the Boys stepped up on the Hillside stage, the sun broke through the clouds and the sky cleared. The band members looked sharp in their suits as they launched into a set full of old standards such as “Lonesome Road Blues.” They moved on to more recent material such as “All Aboard” and the Richard Thompson song turned bluegrass hit “1952 Vincent Black Lightning.” The Del McCoury band is the tightest touring bluegrass act today. They danced around the single microphone with choreographed precision, never missing a note. The week of MerleFest marked Del McCoury’s 40th year playing bluegrass professionally: he showed no sign of slowing down. Incidentally, the band has a new album due out in June.

The bluegrass continued up in the Walker center for a special Hot Rize reunion. Hot Rize carried the torch during the 1980s at a time when bluegrass music was largely overlooked. They disbanded in 1990 when Tim O’Brien and Pete Wernick began solo careers. Sitting in for the late Charles Sawtelle on guitar was Brian Sutton. The set included many old favorites, such as “Blue Night,” “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning,” and “Just Like You.” There wasn’t an empty seat in the Walker center for this show as the band’s voices blended together in perfect harmony, after all their years of singing together. Sadly, the band’s alter ego, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers, was not present. According to O’Brien they’d “lost their way” to a show eight years ago.

The MerleFest MVP for 2003 should have gone to Brian Sutton. Brian has moved into what was once the exclusive domain of Tony Rice, the man you’d call when you needed the best guitar player around. Sutton has appeared on many major bluegrass releases and tours with the best. He toured with the Bela Fleck’s Bluegrass Sessions tour and with Hot Rize’s reunion tour. His smooth guitar playing is both traditional and flashy at the same time. Sutton makes it look easy, his fingers gliding over the frets, throwing in grace notes as he goes. He was everywhere at MerleFest and he drew huge applause for his solos. Although mainly a guitar player, Sutton sang a bit during the Hot Rize set.

Saturday night at the main stage it was time to sit back and enjoy the entertainment with Leahy, a fiddle playing family from Canada. The group is very talented musically, blending folk, Celtic, and modern fiddle playing, but at MerleFest their show was a spectacle for the eyes rather than the ears. Imagine Riverdance and you have an idea of the flurry of activity on stage.

“Evening Music Lovers!” Unfortunately few heard the famous introduction, as the microphone was inadvertently left off. But nothing phases the unflappable Sam Bush Band. They headlined on Saturday night with crowd favorites such as “Howling at the Moon,” then introduced special guest Emmylou Harris. A little known fact about these two is that they are big St. Louis Cardinal fans. Witness “Hey Ozzie,” written by Sam Bush and played earlier this year when Ozzie Smith was inducted into the Baseball Hall of Fame.

When Sam Bush was onstage, music-lovers couldn’t help but get up and dance. However the main stage area at MerleFest was very much anti-dancing, so ushers kept the aisles clear of people. Out on the lawn, dancers were often asked to sit down so they didn’t block the view. There was a dance area provided to the left of the stage, though the artists were largely out of sight from that vantage point. Basically, at MerleFest, if you wanted to dance, you were better off on the smaller stages were you were free to boogie.

Finishing out Saturday night were great sets by the Del McCoury Band and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. McCoury dazzled the crowd with his vocals and did his best to play all the requests shouted out. The younger McCoury (Ronnie) had won the IBMA Mandolin Player of the Year Award every year from 1993-2000, and has been much in demand as a session musician in Nashville. Jason Carter’s fiddle playing balanced perfectly between subtle fills and strident solos. Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder was about the only band that could follow Del and the boys and not pale in comparison. Skaggs also fields a talented lineup. His banjo player Jim Mills is the best traditional sounding five-string picker around. The group played much of Skaggs recent material and left to the sound of thunderous applause.


Sunday morning is gospel time at MerleFest. Mountain Heart played up on the main stage, doing gospel bluegrass numbers and some original material. Etta Baker, a 90-year-old North Carolina blues guitarist, was playing Sunday morning spirituals. Over on the Americana stage, Mike Marshall and Sam Bush put on a mandolin extravaganza, picking their way through complex instrumentals and Marshall’s original compositions. Bush even played a full version of “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” as the crowd sang along.

Saving the best for last, Hot Rize and Emmylou Harris closed out the festival. Hot Rize played well and regaled the crowd with old stories from the band’s early years on the road. “Nellie Cane” and “Walk the Way the Wind Blows” were musical highlights. Hot Rize also took advantage of the Sunday set to play “Rank Strangers,” and sang beautiful harmonies on “Prayer Bells from Heaven.” Emmylou Harris received the red carpet treatment at MerleFest. Sam Bush backed her up on mandolin and Jon Randall Stewart played guitar. Always the cowgirl, Harris looked fantastic in her studded boots. She sang “Red Dirt Girl” from her album of the same name and showed good taste in covers with Gillian Welch’s “Orphan Girl.” She thanked Doc for hosting such a great event and paid tribute by singing a song written by Doc’s wife, Rosa lee Watson.

MerleFest is an “Americana music celebration.” The organizers try to include a wide diversity in the styles, though this year the music leaned heavily towards the twangy Texas sound, instead of more traditional bluegrass or newgrass acts. However, the festival was a success by any standard, since MerleFest is the biggest yearly event in Wilkes County and brings about $8 million dollars into the local economy.

Doc Watson, folk music legend and festival host, performed a few sets throughout the festival. He took the extra time and energy to make many guest appearances, despite his advancing years. Someday the festival will continue on without him, a fitting legacy for someone who has influenced many generations of American musicians.


Visit on Thursdays and Sundays

Don’t forget Thursday and Sunday, when there is plenty of good music and fewer people.

Bring Raingear

April in North Carolina almost certainly means rain, so be prepared with a raincoat, rain pants, and either a camp chair, a “Crazy Creek” chair, or some other waterproof tarp to sit on. Know your indoor venues. The following stages are indoor, or located under a large tent: the Walker Center, the Lounge, the Pit, the Dance Stage, the Traditional Stage, and the Picking Place.

Early Bird Gets The Front Row

Got a favorite band you are dying to see? Absolutely have to sit in the front row for the show? Getting to a show early is essential, especially in the case of stages with limited seating such as the Pit, the Lounge, and the Walker Center. For a front row seat at any stage, it is best to arrive and grab one for the show before yours. Then you are right where you want to be when the crowds roll in.

Keep Your Pocket Schedule Handy

The pocket schedule is your best friend. It folds up easily and has everything you need to plan what stages you will hit that day. Conflicts are inevitable with so many great artists playing. Look carefully and see at what other times that artist is playing. Most play at least three different times on different stages throughout the weekend.

Have a Well-Prepared Cooler and Bring Food

Alcohol is not allowed at MerleFest. Security is strict and you will be asked to dump it out if any of the police see or smell it. All bags and coolers are checked thoroughly on the way into the festival (so be creative). There are many tasty dishes at MerleFest, especially the BBQ Turkey leg. However, three meals a day over four days can get pricey; pack a lunch and snacks and bring beverages.

Sit in the Reserved Seating

Before 5:00pm anyone may sit in the reserved green chairs at the main Watson stage - until the chair’s owner returns. After 5:00pm you must have the appropriate wristband to enter the seating area.

Get Autographs and Photos

You don’t need a photo pass to get good pictures at MerleFest, just courage. Walk right down the aisle to the front and snap a couple of quick pictures. Or slip in by the front row at the side of the stage and take a few good photos. As long as you are in and out quickly and don’t linger too long blocking people’s view, it should be fine. The best places to get autographs are at the smaller stages. Here you can hang out near the backstage area and catch the artists as they head in and out. Keep your eyes peeled as you walk around, too. Jimmy Dale Gilmore, Tut Taylor, Sam Bush, and members of Donna the Buffalo were all spotted at various times just strolling around the festival.

Plan Ahead With

This is one of the more comprehensive festival websites around, and the message board is active all year long. Detailed stage schedules are posted a few weeks before the festival, so you can go to the site and check out which day you are most likely to catch most of your favorite bands.

Words and images by Anson Burtch
JamBase | Southeast
Go See Live Music!

[Published on: 5/19/03]

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