During the four days of Merlefest, North Wilkesboro, NC is the center of the universe for acoustic music. Luminaries such as Alison Krauss, Loretta Lynn, and the Del McCoury Band rub shoulders with newcomers The Duhks, The Avett Brothers, and The Greencards. "The Americana Music Celebration," as it's billed, boasts twelve stages and over a hundred artists. Over 82,000 people attended Merlefest this year over the course of the weekend - a new record.
From traditional bluegrass to hopped-up twang rock, a new generation of musicians is giving new meaning to the term "acoustic." There's a new attitude and new styles of playing, and the result is fantastic music.
Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
The Greencards play down-home American music, yet they are comprised of two Australians and an Englishman. With a fiddle, mandolin, and bass, they sound like Nickel Creek, but they're from Austin, Texas, so they rock. Although the band has only been around for a short time, they have a very mature sound and write fantastic songs. The spunky female bass player really has fun on stage, smiling and teasing her bandmates. Highlights were "Life's a Freeway," which illustrated their great lyrical songwriting, and "Jolly Hockeysticks" - a wild instrumental where each member took a turn showing off their licks. Their latest album Moving On showcases their songwriting and instrumental talents.
Every so often at Merlefest, a band comes out of nowhere and becomes the buzz of the festival. This year that honor was earned by The Duhks (pronounced "Ducks"). This outfit from Winnipeg, Canada starts with old string band music, adds French Canadian, Irish, and Celtic influences, throws in a charismatic female lead singer with a powerful voice, and then rocks it all out. The result is a wild sound that gets people moving. The audience was very receptive, and every single one of their many shows throughout the festival was packed with people. The Duhks focused on material from their new self-titled album on Sugar Hill Records. Jessica Havey, the heavily tattooed, spiky haired lead singer, looks more like a punk star than the lead singer for this Canadian string band, but the pairing works. On "Death Came A Knockin'," her soulful vocals gave a smoky blues feel to the song. Leonard Podolak played his banjo clawhammer style and sang one of their songs in French. They even managed to work in a good cover of Sting's "Love is the Seventh Wave." Guitarist Jordan McConnell plays smooth leads that augment but don't overpower the band's sound. With their mishmash of Americana, folk, and world sounds, the Duhks exemplify exciting new directions in acoustic music.
The Duhks Merlefest 2005 by Maria Camillo
For those who long for that traditional sound, King Wilkie is here to accommodate. This group from Charlottesville, VA is the hottest band in traditional bluegrass right now. Guitarist Ted Pitney writes originals that recall the days of Bill Monroe. For their afternoon set on the main stage at Merlefest, the boys wore their finest suits and gathered 'round two microphones. Their delicate, mournful playing on "Lee and Paige" brought poignancy to the ballad of two fated lovers. King Wilkie also knows how to shred bluegrass style, trading solos on the instrumental "40 West." Abe Spear took a few breaks on the banjo and stands out as a very fine player. The band also made an appearance on the Hillside stage Saturday afternoon where they played one of their fantastic originals, "Damn Yankee Lad." King Wilkie is poised to be the next big band in traditional bluegrass.
Avett Brothers :: Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Perhaps the most energized band of the entire weekend was the Avett Brothers. Playing banjo and guitar, these two brothers and their bass player stomp through raucous and rowdy original tunes and not-so-tender ballads. Punkgrass is probably the most accurate description for the Avett Brothers' music. Sometimes singing, sometimes shouting, they still manage to blend their voices into harmony similar to early Uncle Tupelo songs. While everything about them is rough around the edges, they create music with passion, depth, and a great sense of humor. "Me and God" has them ruminating on spirituality, "because me and God don't need a middleman." They played with such reckless abandon they actually had to tune their instruments mid-song. Imagine the Ramones banging away on a banjo, bass, and guitar, and you are only getting close to Avett Brothers experience. Their latest album Mignonette was one of the few I purchased at the festival. Don't miss seeing these guys live next time they are in town; the Avett Brothers are a stompin' good time.
Billing itself as "The Americana Music Celebration," Merlefest has a little something for everyone. From country to bluegrass to newgrass, these were the major stars.
Thursday night's set on the main stage was Loretta Lynn. This country music superstar has been enjoying a resurgence thanks to her Van Lear Rose album, recorded with Jack White of the White Stripes. But the crowd at Merlefest has been in love with Lynn since her "Coal Miner's Daughter" days. Despite a cold that had her sounding just a little scratchy, she came out like a true performer in a shiny red sequined top and gave us her all. Songs like "Don't Come Home Drinkin' (With Lovin' On Your Mind)" and "I'm A Honky Tonk Woman" energized the crowd. Lynn has always embodied the straight-forward no-nonsense style of music, as in her song "(That Woman's Burning Down Our) Family Tree." Her band was an old-school country one with that 1950's clean Stratocaster sound. Lynn even had her daughters come out and sing a few songs of their own. Come early and stay late seems to be the new Merlefest strategy. By scheduling Lynn for Thursday evening, the festival drew a record crowd for that day.
Loretta Lynn :: Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
With the Flecktones on a hiatus, Bela Fleck is back to his newgrass roots this summer with the Bela Fleck Acoustic Trio. Featuring Bryan Sutton on guitar and Casey Driessen on fiddle, this all-star lineup is touring festivals around the country. They were the perfect act for a Friday afternoon on the main stage. Fleck commented that it was "like Christmas" playing with these guys. Sutton is a master of bluegrass guitar and pushes the boundaries of his playing anytime he mixes it up with Fleck. The trio has a newgrass feel with three simple instruments weaving complex melodies. The music is constantly shifting, traveling to the next emotion, and taking you along for the ride. There are both classical and jazz elements involved as the three performed long arrangements and then morphed into more freestyle soloing. Sutton plays fast and clean solos, beautiful to the ear and not too busy. The songs were a mix of Bela's original works as well as Sutton's. "Big Country" > "Down in the Swamp" was a crowd favorite. Even the Duhks found time in their busy schedule to watch the trio.
Bela Fleck :: Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
A special treat at this year's festival was the world's most renowned Celtic band, The Chieftains. Recently they took up residence in a Nashville recording studio and invited all of their bluegrass friends to join them for The Chieftains: Down the Old Plank Road. The sessions were re-created on the Merlefest stage as the likes of Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Earl Scruggs, and Allison Moorer came out to join them. The stage was barely able to contain the entire group. The Chieftains have fiddles, tin whistles, recorders, flutes, a harp, Bodhráns (a small Celtic drum), Irish bagpipes, and even cloggers as part of their touring band. Traditional Irish music is some of the most happy, up-tempo, toe-tapping music in the world. The entire set makes you get up and dance. The structure of most songs is familiar to jamband fans as there is generally a chorus where everyone plays and then solos are passed around from person to person, all variations on the main theme. There were even a few Rolling Stones teases thrown in. Allison Moorer was spectacular with her beautiful voice, and Tim O'Brien held down the comedy with a little routine of his own.
The Chieftains with Allison Moorer
Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
It's not Merlefest without Doc Watson. The legend of Americana helped start the folk revival by playing New York City coffee shops in the early 1960's. His son Eddie Merle Watson, who played and toured with his father, died in a tragic accident in 1985. A few years later, Merlefest was started as a small gathering of musicians to celebrate the life and legacy of Merle Watson. This was the 18th year of the festival, and it continues to grow. At the age of 82, Watson is still out there touring and promoting the music he loves. Although a bit scratchy after a bout with laryngitis, he played a number of sets throughout the weekend with his friends.
Doc Watson Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Friday night the Jerry Douglas Band took to the main stage for a set of the slickest Dobro playing around. Songs like the traditional "Cincinnati Rag" and the Allman Brothers' "Little Martha" translate perfectly to the Dobro (or "resophonic guitar" as it's properly called). Douglas is a virtuoso of his instrument and has released a series of successful solo albums. His set included some new songs that are slated to be on his upcoming album. Things picked up as Bela Fleck and Sam Bush came out to join him for an extended jam on "Who's Your Uncle" from the new album. Douglas also employs a fiddle player named Gabe who sports a mohawk - a refreshing sight at a bluegrass festival.
The reigning champion of bluegrass is the Del McCoury Band. It's hard to argue with seven IBMA "Entertainer of the Year" awards in eight years. With an aggregation of talent second to none, they cluster around a single microphone and lay down strictly traditional bluegrass the way it was meant to be played. Ronnie McCoury is masterful on the mandolin, making it sing on instrumentals such as "Back Up and Push." The set was filled with familiar songs like "Travelin' Teardrop Blues," "Nashville Cats," and "It's Just the Night." The band has a new album coming out very soon, and the crowd was treated to a few of the cuts including "Never Grow Up." Del and his younger son, banjo player Rob McCoury, were incredibly precise as they tore through the instrumental numbers. The crowd wouldn't let McCoury leave the stage without singing Richard Thompson's "1952 Vincent Black Lightning." It's going to be hard for any band to unseat these musicians who are currently at the top of their game.
Del McCoury Band :: Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder drew a large crowd for their set Saturday afternoon on the main stage. Also one of the top-selling bluegrass acts, Ricky Skaggs has a very talented band. Originally a bluegrasser who defected to country in the 70's and 80's, he made a very public return to his roots with the 1998 release Bluegrass Rules. Since that time he has continued to release award-winning albums. His latest, Brand New Strings, won the Grammy this year. Fiddle player Andy Leftwich blazed through "Sis Draper" and "Sally Jo." Skaggs' band is a bit like the Eagles in that their music is highly polished. Rarely (if ever) will you hear a wrong note or see someone mess up a solo.
Ricky Skaggs Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Sam Bush is back! Not that he ever went away, but after a couple years of stagnant set lists, Bush has turned things around with a new lineup, a new set list, and a rockin' show Saturday night at Merlefest. The band now includes Scott Vestal on banjo and Keith Sewell on guitar. Vestal is considered one of the top pickers around and has appeared on scores of records. His precise licks brought new life to the music. The band went through some old material as well as some inspired covers. There was "Sapporo" from the New Grass Revival Days, "Back in the Goodle Days" - a John Hartford song, and "Mahavishnu Mountain Boys" from his latest album King Of My World. Bush himself seemed extremely upbeat and excited to be there which delighted the crowd. Like a Phoenix rising from the ashes, the changes have invigorated the group.
Sam Bush Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Alison Krauss and Union Station was the last group to play on Sunday afternoon. Krauss and her band are the top-drawing bluegrass act around. They are consummate professionals, well known outside the genre, which garnered them an invitation to Bonnaroo this year. Their music is a soft melodic brand of bluegrass, polished and delivered with perfection. She played a few tracks from her new album including "Rain Please Go Away" as well as old favorites such as "Now That I've Found You." Although it's been quite a few years since Oh Brother Where Art Thou?, the crowd went crazy when guitar player Dan Timinski sang "Man of Constant Sorrow." Krauss finished the set with "Oh Atlanta," and the encore was a beautiful a cappella rendition of "Down to the River To Pray."
Darrell Scott is perhaps the most soulful songwriter working today. His music speaks of family, life experiences, and loves lost and won. A large man, he creates an entire stage presence with just his voice and guitar. For his Thursday night set on the Cabin, Scott was joined by two fiddle players, Casey Driessen being one of them. Driessen gets the ubiquitous award this year. Every time you looked up, there he was on stage jamming with someone new. The combo was a potent one as they ran through "With A Memory Like Mine" and "River Take Me." The highlight was an amazing version of Johnny Cash's "I Still Miss Someone." The twin fiddles soared and dipped around his powerful voice. Scott was back on Saturday for a plugged-in electric set playing a Gibson Les Paul, a rare sight at Merlefest.
Darrell Scott Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Being good friends with Doc Watson greatly helps your chances of being featured at Merlefest, but the Kruger Brothers are stars in their own right. These two brothers relocated to Wilkes County, NC from Switzerland to pursue bluegrass music full time. In the short time they've been here, the Krugers have soaked up the music and the language. During their set on the Americana stage, elder brother Uwe Kruger sang "Carolina in the Fall" in his deep booming tenor with no trace of an accent. Jens Kruger is a banjo wizard, playing some of the fastest banjo at the festival. He was especially fluid on the white-hot instrumental "Waterfall." It must be that Swiss precision. They rounded out their set with traditional songs "The Old Crossroads" and "Nobody's Fault But Mine" (the bluegrass version that is).
Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
One of Sunday's highlights was Donna the Buffalo in the Dance tent. This is the perfect group for the Dance tent since their fans shake it like a Polaroid picture. Fiddle player Tara Nevis has never seemed happier. She was grinning the entire time and actually jumped up and down with excitement. Maybe it had to do with all of their guests. Long time friend of the band Jim Lauderdale joined them as did Casey Driessen on fiddle. Musically, the band was at their best, romping through a fantastic set. It was interesting to note that they have not replaced longtime guitar player Jim Miller. Miller left the band back in January to pursue a career studying moths (apparently he's one of the world's leading experts). The band's sound has not suffered as they sound just as good as ever. Tara Nevis also got in a solo set Friday on the Creekside stage. She has a special affinity for old string band music, having released a solo album comprised mainly of such material. Her set was beautiful, her voice ringing clear above her fiddle lines.
Seemingly out of nowhere, Railroad Earth has become a mainstay at festivals. Their unique brand of folk-rock is anchored by great harmonies and strong lyrics. They can jam too as all six of them are excellent musicians. Tim Carbone is fun to watch as he gets wild on the fiddle, a lightning stream of notes flowing out while he bounces around. Andy Goessling is the band's utility man. He can play any instrument under the sun including banjo, guitar, saxophone, and even tin whistle. They worked in songs from their new album The Good Life including "Long Way to Go" and "Mourning Flies," along with staples such as "Peace on Earth" and "Dandelion Wine." With their focus on lyrics, melody, and good songwriting, Railroad Earth is a welcome addition to any festival's lineup.
Railroad Earth :: Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
Tim O'Brien has been a premier songwriter for many years now. Formerly of the band Hot Rize, O'Brien now works on numerous collaborations and recently put out his best solo album to date, Traveler. Saturday afternoon O'Brien joined forces with his sister Molly O'Brien for a set that featured great vocal harmonies and many surprises. Molly O'Brien has a beautiful voice and hit all the high notes on "Will You Still Remember Me" and "Sweet Sunny South." The surprises began when Chris Thile of Nickel Creek got up on stage to play. Guests are common at Merlefest, but Nickel Creek was not even on the schedule this year, so Thile must have come to Merlefest just to hang out. Things continued to heat up when Sara Watkins, also of Nickel Creek, and Danny Nicely, the journeyman mandolin player, came on stage for the old spiritual "Shut De Door." The last surprise was a cover of Terence Trent D'Arby's "Sign Your Name Across My Heart," an interesting cover choice indeed.
Feeling the need for speed? The Merlefest banjo contest is the place to go for the fastest picking action around. Top banjo players from all over the country sign up early for a chance to compete against each other for the title. Dr. Banjo himself, Pete Wernick, presides over the contest where improvisational skill is valued just as highly as technical ability. The fireworks came when Donnie Little of Claremont, NC, tore up the bluegrass instrumental "Big Country" in the final round. Little's performance brought thunderous applause, but 1st place went to Bruce Stockwell of Putney, VT, whose slower, sultry playing won over the judges.
Josh Pinkham & Chris Thile
Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
The Chris Austin Songwriting Contest is another Merlefest event not to miss. Past winners, such as Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt, have gone on to very successful careers. This year Zane Williams from Nashville, TN, owned the songwriting contest, winning in the General category and the Country category, and placing third in the Gospel category. Williams is just finishing a solo album which should be out soon.
"Mando Mania" is a sonic assault featuring just about every mandolin at the festival. This year's jam on the Creekside stage was a debut party of sorts for Josh Pinkham. The teenage prodigy has been playing mandolin for a very short time but has already reached the top echelon of players. He joined Sam Bush, Mike Compton, Ronnie McCoury, Tim O'Brien, and many others for a spirited jam. At one point, there were twelve mandolins on stage. Everyone seemed to enjoy tossing licks back and forth to one another with a smile and a nod that said "top that!"
Peter Rowan Merlefest 2005 by Willa Stein
The father of bluegrass, Bill Monroe, is no longer with us, but his band sure is. Monroe toured for over 60 years, bringing his music to the nation and the world. Over that time, many talented musicians were lucky enough to have spent time in the "Bluegrass Boys." A stint in Monroe's band was seen as the ultimate musical finishing school, and many musicians went on to be stars in their own right. Saturday evening many of these lucky men staged a "Bluegrass Boys Reunion." Hosted by Peter Rowan, members of this elite club included Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, Roland White, Bobby Hicks, Richard Greene, and many more. The group had a great time, picking Monroe numbers and telling stories about their former leader. They blazed through songs like "Panhandle Country" and "Heavy Traffic Ahead," where Earl Scruggs showed off the licks he invented that literally define bluegrass music. There were countless reminiscences and sentimental stories. When asked in later years if Monroe thought Elvis had ruined his song "Blue Moon of Kentucky," he replied, "Why no. Those were good checks!" referring to the huge amount of royalties he received. Everyone came back out on stage for a smokin' "Muleskinner Blues" encore.
CAN'T SEE IT ALL
It's not an uncommon sight to see someone hunched over a schedule rushing from one place to another. With over twelve stages, it's literally impossible to see everything. Unfortunately, this means that there were some great acts I wasn't able to see. Artists and sets of note were:
Old School Freight Train – The newest act signed to David Grisman's Acoustic Disc label, these Virginia musicians are versatile in both bluegrass and "Dawg" music.
Peter Rowan's "Crucial Country" – Word around the festival was this all-star lineup with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Tony Rice, and others played an amazing set.
The Wilders – This group out of Kansas City has a great honky-tonk sound and garnered rave reviews.
Wayfaring Strangers – This genre-defying group mixes everything up and puts a pop spin on their music. The vocals were said to be excellent.
Tony Rice – The man, the myth, the legend. Rice was a no-show for his scheduled Thursday afternoon set but appeared throughout the weekend with other acts.
Allison Moorer – This songbird (think Norah Jones with a guitar) was wonderful with the Chieftains. During her solo set on Sunday, she was joined by alt-country bad boy Steve Earle.
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