MERLEFEST 2004: AMERICANA AT ITS BEST

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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