MERLEFEST 2004: AMERICANA AT ITS BEST

For 17 years Merlefest gathers the best of the best for the largest and most diverse Americana music festival in the country. From bluegrass (Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, and The Kruger Brothers), to old time music (the Reeltime Travelers, Tara Nevins), to country (Vince Gill, Rosanne Cash, and Kelly Willis), and everything in between (Peter Rowan and Reggaebilly, Mark O’Connor, Nickel Creek, Donna the Buffalo), Merlefest covers the entire spectrum.

The annual pilgrimage to Wilkesboro, NC is in honor of Merle Watson, son of legendary flatpicker Doc Watson. It is an annual rite of spring and the unofficial start to the festival season. This year’s festival felt like a changing of the guard, with the emergence of many new acoustic acts. Here's a look at some of the newer bands on the scene.

Out with the Old, in With the New

Aussie Americana invades the US in the form of the Waifs. This band has opened up for Bob Dylan and brought its acoustic folk rock to the Merlefest stage. Comprised of three accomplished singer/songwriters, the music is fun, upbeat, and well crafted. Jangly guitars and gorgeous vocals make this a band to see.


Reeltime Travelers
Photo by Greg Wallace
Merlefest's Traditional Stage has long been an integral part of the festival, featuring true old-time mountain music. Thanks to the Reeltime Travelers, there is renewed interest and excitement in this often overlooked genre. This young band is writing volumes of original material in the old-time tradition. Guitarist Martha Scanlan wrote and performed perhaps their best original number, "Hallelujah." They also have plenty of songs about whiskey, trains, and spurned lovers. The banjo is played clawhammer style, half-strummed, half-picked. Fiddle player Heidi Andrade often takes breaks, stomping out the rhythm in an impressive display of genuine Appalachian clogging. This young band is the future of old-time music. The Reeltime Travelers take home my unofficial Merlefest MVP award for their contribution to old-time music and being the talk of the festival.


Bering Strait
One of the joys of such a large festival is finding out about exciting new bands. Over on the Americana Stage, the Two High String Band performed a marvelous set. The talented duo of Billy and Bryn Bright are masters of mandolin and bass, respectively. The Brights have played extensively with Peter Rowan in his Texas Trio and even released their own solo disc. Joined by guitarists Brian Smith and Geoff Union, the Two High String Band plays John Hartford-influenced string music with clean picking and melodic harmonies. In fact the spirit of John Hartford was pervasive throughout the weekend. Many artists mentioned him by name and many more played his songs, making him the most covered artist at the festival.

Making a splash before they even landed, Bering Strait combine hard-driving folk rock with a touch of bluegrass. The band has appeared on the news program 60 Minutes twice and has been nominated for a Grammy. Their fun, upbeat music has an international flavor and was well-received at Merlefest. The pianist possesses a beautiful voice and the banjo player is certainly proficient. Being new to the Merlefest experience, the band was in awe of all of their musical heroes casually strolling around the festival. The media has lavished much attention upon Bering Strait, probably due to the novelty of a Russian band playing country music and the fact that they are all very striking looking Europeans. With all the publicity behind them and definite enthusiasm for their music, Bering Strait is a band on the rise.

Musicians Making a Name for Themselves


Natalie MacMaster
No one has seen his or her career take off like fiddle virtuoso Natalie MacMaster. Brought up in Cape Brenton, Canada, she quickly picked up traditional fiddle, learning the ancient tunes that came to the new world from Scotland. By dragging those traditional songs into the 21st century she has made a name for herself on the festival circuit. A ball of electricity and an unbelievable musician, Natalie's energy shone throughout her set as she fiddled and danced, often simultaneously. While she plays fairly straight-up traditional melodies, the full power of her backing band makes her music anything but standard. She plays with an electric guitar, drums, electric bass, keyboards, and sometimes bagpipes or recorders, and the band gives the old melodies new drive and energy. Her Main Stage performance was a crowd pleaser as she blazed through songs and told stories in her modest Canadian accent. She is also true to her roots, busting out a 300-year-old tune entitled "Blue Bonnets over the Boarder." For fiddle fans or those who just want to see a musician in her prime, check out Natalie and her band on tour.

It's slightly ironic that The Kruger Brothers, Uwe and Jens, who hail from Switzerland, play some of the most honest Americana music today. But play it they do, and very well. Jens especially is lightning fast on the banjo, belting out runs so fast they blend into one another and create a blazing tapestry of notes. Uwe has a deep rich voice that is accented when he speaks, but he sounds like a true southerner when he sings. Part of their popularity is their song selection; they played numbers like "I Know You Rider" and "Tennessee Stud" they gave these traditional selections new life. Though they've been appearing regularly at Merlefest since 1997, they recently moved to the US and released a brand new album called Choices.

Nashville's hottest session musician is Bryan Sutton. Bryan has earned the reputation as the go-to guitarist for bluegrass. He appeared a number of times at Merlefest, including a notable Cabin Stage set on Friday. After playing a few solo tunes, he was joined by Tim O'Brien and Bela Fleck, making for a mini all-star jam. The highlight was when Bryan's father Jerry Sutton came out to play a duet. Look for Bryan's latest solo album Bluegrass Guitar for an example of his fine flatpicking.

Adding to the buzz surrounding the old-time music this year, Tara Nevins performed three solo sets throughout the festival. Known as the fiddle player for Donna the Buffalo, Tara’s real love is authentic country music. She brought the musicians who played on her solo release Mule To Ride, including the smallest banjo ever, appropriately named the "Banjuke." The set was a fantastic journey through Appalachia both old and new. Seasoned Artists That Still Rock

Hot off Traveler, his best release in years, Tim O'Brien took the Cabin Stage with fiddle wizard Casey Driessen and played a spirited set. Songs included "Less & Less," "Family History," and "Kelly Joe's Shoes." Pete Wernick made a surprise appearance and they played their old Hot Rize classic, "Climbing up a Mountain." Tim O'Brien continues to add classics to the Americana songbook.


Press Photo
When Bela Fleck signed a five album deal with Sony a few years back, the contract stipulated that two of the albums be released on the Sony Classical label. Teaming up with bassist and composer Edgar Meyer, the pair brought their unique "Chamber Grass" music to Merlefest. Aside from composing rounds and cannons, Meyer bowed his stand-up bass to elicit runs that were in turns sinister, melodic, airy, and dark. With songs titled "Bug Tussle" and "Wooly Mammoth," you get a hint that this isn't typical classical music. Bela was his usual self, displaying lightning fast skills on the banjo and a sense of fun in everything he did.

Gillian Welch is perhaps the best songwriter in the business today, creating brand new music that seems old as the hills. One of her three sets from the weekend contained selections from her new album, including "Look at Miss Ohio," the semi-biographical "No One Knows My Name," and "Wrecking Ball." David Rawlings displayed his passionate, one of a kind lead guitar style on "Red Clay Halo" and "Rock of Ages." Gillian and Dave performed a number of times throughout the weekend, but their best set was on the Austin Stage, with an intimate and attentive crowd.

Long Nashville's top dobro session player, Jerry Douglas has worked on over 1,000 projects. His Main Stage set on Thursday was fantastic, the band backing him adding a full sound to his soaring dobro. The dobro has a range similar to a human voice, and provided the melody line during the instrumental set. He played material off his latest CD Look Out For Hope as well as older albums like Skip, Hop & Wobble, ending the set with a rousing "Patrick Meets the Brickbats." His fiddle player Gabe was sporting the first and only bluegrass mohawk I've ever seen. Leave it to Jerry Douglas to push boundaries.


Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile & Bryan Sutton
Perhaps the three most technically precise musicians at the festival, Mark O'Connor, Chris Thile, and Bryan Sutton put on an mind-blowing display Saturday at the Americana Stage. The music was reminiscent of the jazzy swing era, like Django Reinhart playing in a speakeasy. Mark's fiddle lines constantly played around the beat, keeping things in full swing. And who better to hang with him than mandolin prodigy Chris Thile and flatpicker Bryan Sutton? The crowd overflowed the smaller side stage, and many people without sightlines stayed just to listen. More than once a bystander asked, "What kind of music is this?" These highly original musicians are combining the old with the new, coming full circle. Mark normally tours with the Hot Swing Trio. Check out their albums for a taste of this wildly original music. Without a doubt, this was the set of the day on Saturday.

Perennial Merlefest favorites Donna the Buffalo is an extremely positive band of zydeco-groove musicians that's seemingly been on the road forever. As usual they got a huge crowd response and by the end of their Saturday set had everyone dancing in the aisles. They opened with "Better Days," and later got going with "Funky Side," and included an excellent "Family Picture." Loyal followers (aka The Herd) are plentiful in North Carolina and always show up in huge numbers at Merlefest.


Darol Anger & Mike Marshall
It isn't festival season until Darol Anger and Mike Marshall show up to the party. These two madcap musicians have been exploring and breaking boundaries for years. Playing as The Duo, they traded classical licks and rhythmic chops. With influences from Bach to the Mahavishnu Orchestra, this intellectual head music defies categorization. Mike brought out his Mando-cello, an oversized, mandolin with a deep, mysterious sound. The show-stopping finale "Borealis" brought the crowd to its feet.

The Creekside Stage, tucked away behind the Main Stage, is a little slice of acoustic heaven. Playing a set on Friday was the legendary Hot Tuna, featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady. These two heads from the '60s San Francisco psychedelic rock scene left all of that behind to focus on their love of blues, country, and more traditional material. Here at the Creekside, they performed "Keep You Lamp Trimmed and Burning" and an old favorite "Hesitation Blues."


Earl Scruggs
The Indigo Girls are back with a new album and renewed energy…not that they ever went anywhere to begin with. Amy Ray and Emily Saliers still have the chemistry and the talent that made them stars in the first place. Their Thursday night set on the Main Stage was brilliant, with songs spanning their entire career. Amy's smoky voice is the perfect counterpoint to Emily's high soprano. Emily switched instruments practically every song, playing guitar, mandolin, and banjo with equal aplomb. Their voices blended in their signature harmonies, creating an enormously large sound for just two people.

Celebrating his 80th birthday, the father of the five string Earl Scruggs played a set with his Family and Friends. The North Carolina native invented the distinctive bluegrass three-finger roll. He played with Bill Monroe and the Bluegrass Boys before co-founding the immensely influential group Flatt & Scruggs. Earl played admirably during the set, which featured guest appearances by Bryan Sutton and Doc Watson. They ran through many bluegrass classics including "Blue Moon of Kentucky," "Long Black Veil," and the "Ballad of Jed Clampett." While Earl is a living legend, this set was high on sentiment and low on excitement. The crowd enjoyed seeing him, but the performances from the Family and Friends lacked genuine energy and were fairly routine. Earl did have a chance to shine though with a couple of slick instrumentals. Many bluegrass legends have gone "over Jordon," (bluegrass slang for passed away) so it was good to see the likes of Doc and Earl still playing.


Jim Kerwin & Joe Craven of the
David Grisman Quintet
David Grisman, founder of "Dawg," music shows no signs of slowing down. His latest quintet is heavy on the Caribbean jazz and swing influences. They took the stage decked out in bright Hawaiian shirts. With his dark shades and bushy grey beard, the Dawg looked like Santa Claus on vacation. Opening the set was the classic "EMD" from his 1977 self-titled debut album, and the energy stayed constant throughout.

With his first new studio album in five years, King of My World, Sam Bush is back on the road. Not that he needs a reason--the ubiquitous festivarian is practically a given at any major summertime musical gathering. His Friday night set on the Main Stage included "Eight More Miles to Louisville" and "They're Gonna Miss Me When I'm Gone," both staples of his set for a few years now and featured on the new album. The band's lineup has been rotating recently, but for festival energy and the comfort of hearing a familiar set, Sam Bush is king of his world.

Uniquely Merlefest

Friday at Merlefest was the highly competitive banjo contest. When the dust settled, William Parsons of the band Meridian picked up first place and a brand new Earl Scruggs model banjo. Capturing third place was a face familiar to many, Hank Smith of North Carolina-based Barefoot Manner. With traditional material like "Dear Old Dixie" and a highly complex original piece "Nervous Breakdown," Hank’s blazing speed and technical precision wowed the judges. Another Friday feature is the Chris Austin Songwriting contest. Over the years this contest has given a major boost to the careers of the winners. Hopefully it will do the same for the winner of the bluegrass song category, Mike Finders of Iowa City and his song "Adeline."

The Dance Tent is consistently a Merlefest favorite. It is the only place where you are actively encouraged to boogie at the festival. Each session teaches a new dance step and everyone is welcome to join in. The musicians are always excellent and everyone has lots of fun. The Reeltime Travelers were everywhere and played a set at the Dance Tent. Their traditional music served as a soundtrack to the contra lessons where strangers and friends danced arm in arm.


John Cowan
Although they only played a short set on the Cabin Stage between Main Stage acts, the magic of Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, and John Cowan shone through. Bela is well know the world over for his avant-garde banjo playing, while Casey is Tim O'Brien's right hand fiddle man these days. John Cowan has a tendency to overdo things, but here was kept in check, and his golden pipes hitting all the high notes. They played just two songs in about 15 minutes, an intricate "Hold To A Dream" seamlessly segueing into "Rose Of Old Kentucky."

The man behind the festival, Americana music legend Doc Watson, is getting on in years, and decided to scale back his performances. Despite his advancing age, he remains the heart and soul of the festival. He did find time to make a guest appearance with Earl Scruggs, and also did sets with his grandson Richard Watson and longtime picking companion Jack Lawrence.

Picture yourself back in middle school and suddenly Bela Fleck arrives to show you a thing or two on the banjo. Or maybe Tony Rice appears to discuss the finer points of bluegrass guitar. Sound like a dream? For Wilkes County students, it's a reality. In recent years Merlefest has sponsored an outreach program where festival artists visit local schools to introduce them to bluegrass and Americana music. The program helps raise musical awareness and has created many new young fans. Bands That Fell Somewhere in Between

Merle Watson's son and Doc Watson's grandson, Richard Watson is continuing the family tradition. His music is focused on the blues and he picks it clean and smooth. While not a full-time musician, Richard is a regular feature at the festival. One of the standouts from Richard’s set was "Further on Up the Road."

Falling into the country category were Kelly Willis and Bruce Robison, both accomplished singer/songwriters from Austin, TX. Their easy country sound was heartfelt and genuine, and unlike the polished country you hear on the radio, these were well crafted songs with a tinge of twang.

The scheduling gurus at Merlefest usually recruit a big name act for Saturday night. This year Vince Gill filled the role. Many people are unaware that Vince started as a bluegrass musician and only later moved into the mainstream with the Pure Prairie League, and then into country as a solo act. His evening set on the Main Stage was slick Nashville country music all the way: pedal steel guitars, steady drums, and silly lyrics. One number that he jokingly proclaimed to be "The greatest country song I've ever written" was a sarcastic number about an annoying ex--pretty standard fare even for pop country. He redeemed himself slightly with a version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire." Vince, a close friend of the Cash family, brought out Rosanne Cash to perform their 1985 top ten duet "If It Weren't for Him."

Pine Mountain Railroad is one of those bluegrass bands that puts on a polished performance while wearing suits. They have a single on the bluegrass charts with a very country influenced feel, similar to what Alabama would sound like if they played bluegrass. Their set mixed in liberal amounts of gospel and, in true Martha White tradition, included a commercial jingle for Odom’s Tennessee Pride Country Sausage, the sponsors of their tour.

Straight out of a roadside Texas saloon, The Derailers play honky tonk like it was meant to be, fast and furious. Their sound features a chunky drum beat, slick guitar runs, and a full piano--something like Elvis singing honky tonk.

You Can't See It All

With over 100 performing acts and 13 stages, it's literally impossible to see everything. Here are a few sets that I missed but heard excellent things about.


Chris Thile
Tony Rice is the bluegrass flatpicker every guitar player aspires to be, and is back with the very talented lineup from the early 1990s. Featuring the Simpkins brothers, the set was comprised mostly of bluegrass classics.

Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae featuring the Burning Spear Horns played a set at the Dance Tent Saturday that drew rave reviews. Combine the bluegrass songbook of Peter Rowan with the dance groove of Crucial Reggae, then add the Burning Spear Horns, and it certainly sounds like a recipe for success.

Also on the forefront of the old time music revival, Old Crow Medicine Show bring a punk mentality to their sound, the Ramones of old time music, if you will.

Nickel Creek stole the festival two years ago. This time they were not as hyped, but put on a spectacular set regardless. Chris Thile is working on becoming the next Sam Bush and the next David Grisman combined.

John Cowan, the former New Grass Revival singer, brought out the surprise of the festival with a special appearance by Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones for "Dazed and Confused."

Words by Anson Burtch
Photos by Gabriel Nelson (unless otherwise noted)
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