Most stories about MerleFest begin by describing the cold, rainy weather common to this time of year in North Carolina. This year, however, for the first time in memory, the weather at MerleFest was picture book perfect.
The 14th annual tribute to Merle Watson, son of guitarist and acoustic music legend Doc Watson
, took place April 26-29 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., and drew its largest crowd to date of music lovers from all over the world. A festival of enormous size, it includes 14 different stages running all day long. "Festivarians" have over 250 concerts to choose from, all for a single ticket price. The choices often seem to overwhelm the concertgoers, who can be seen vigorously trying to plan their
routes with assortments of highlighters, magic markers and other tools.
This year’s performances again showcased the depth and scope of the festival’s focus: bluegrass, country, folk, blues and just about every other form of Americana and roots music was represented. Highlights included Dolly Parton , Earl Scruggs with Family & Friends, the Del McCoury Band , Bela Fleck & the Flecktones , Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Mary Chapin Carpenter, Nickel Creek, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, the Sam Bush Band, the John Cowan Band, Tony Rice, Jim Lauderdale, the Jerry Douglas Band, the David Grisman Quintet, Tim O’Brien, Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, the Seldom Scene, Donna the Buffalo, and Watson himself.
The audience is also treated to the sight of artists sitting in and jamming together in combinations that wouldn’t normally happen. Watson played a set with Seminole Indian Chief Jim Billie; Rowan’s Texas Trio was joined by Tony Rice; and Victor Wooten & Future Man from the Flecktones played a rhythm-section-only show that added Posi Leppikangas from the John Cowan Band. You also never know who might decide to sit in at the last minute. Watson, especially, seemed to enjoy popping in, joining everyone from lesser-known acts to mega-stars like Parton and Scruggs.
The festivities kicked off on Thursday with Bela Fleck & the Flecktones and the Del McCoury Band. Both played highly energetic sets to get the audience’s blood boiling. Mandolin maestro Sam Bush sat in with the Flecktones for several songs, reuniting the two former members of New Grass Revival.
Friday night saw main stage performances by the John Cowan Band, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Nickel Creek and Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder. Chris Hillman of the Byrds and the Flying Burrito Brothers hosted a jam session called "Out of the Woodwork" that also featured Tony & Larry Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ronnie & Rickie Simpkins.
Saturday’s highlights included rockers Donna the Buffalo with special guest Rowan, the Sam Bush Band, the David Grisman Quintet and the Jerry Douglas Band.
Sunday included sets by O’Brien and Carpenter before setting up the one-two knockout punch of the weekend. First up was Scruggs with Family & Friends, pulling out all the stops for an amazing performance which included Watson sitting in. The final show was billed as "A Special Bluegrass Reunion" but was in fact a reunion of Old & in the Way, featuring Rowan, Clements and David Grisman. Original member Jerry Garcia was undeniably missed, but the energy brought to the stage by this amazing collection of pickers, first unleashed on the bluegrass world with their 1973 self-titled album, was a truly wonderful way to close out an amazing weekend of music.
The biggest show of all, however, was Parton’s Saturday night set. Backed by a virtual who’s-who of bluegrass, including Douglas on Dobro, Bush & Nickel Creek’s Chris on mandolins, fiddler Stuart Duncan and guitarist Bryan Sutton. Parton held nothing back in proving her devotion to bluegrass music. In her press conference Saturday morning, she emphatically professed her love for bluegrass, and for Watson in particular, stressing how proud and happy she was finally to be playing MerleFest and hoping to be invited back for many years to come. Judging from the crowd’s reaction to her set, she has nothing to worry about. Her voice melted beautifully into heartfelt bluegrass ballads and even restarting a song after swallowing a bug didn’t dampen the energy of her performance. A near-record crowd was on hand to witness her first appearance at MerleFest, and they couldn’t have been more enthusiastic at watching this well-known country star kick up her heels and throw down with the best of them.
The main stage isn’t the only place to catch big name acts, however, as the schedulers make sure to spread the talent over all the stages throughout the entire day. A quick glance at the schedule for Saturday at 2 p.m., for instance, showed simultaneous performances by Watson & Jack Lawrence, O’Brien with Carpenter, Rowan with Tony Rice, the Dan Tyminski Band and Swedish shredders The Kruger Brothers. Some folks enjoyed sitting down for a whole show at a time, while others ran themselves silly trying to catch 20 or 30 minutes of everything. Audience members could stake out a stage, stalk their favorite picker, choose an instrument, focus on a style or simply wander around aimlessly, checking out all the great music they ran into by accident.
While most people come to MerleFest to see bands and artists who have been predetermined, another huge draw is the jam sessions, workshops, and Q&A sessions sprinkled throughout the weekend. Dobro player? Be sure to catch Douglas’ Friday morning seminar. Play guitar? Enter the guitarists’ contest and have the chance to play alongside one of your heroes. Play mandolin? Check out "Mando Mania" on Saturday afternoon, featuring Bush, Grisman and Thile jamming together on mandolin classics while answering questions from the crowd in between songs. If you ever wanted to know what kind of picks Grisman used or what’s in Bush’s CD player right now, this was your chance to find out.
One of the unique features of MerleFest is the wide range of ages in the attendees. Most festivals seem to speak to one demographic group or another, but MerleFest truly has fans in all age groups. Teenagers and young adults find plenty of common ground with the older folks, both inside the concert grounds as well as outside in the campsites at night, where many a hoedown features cross-generational jams. Little kids aren’t left out of MerleFest, either. In fact they have a whole stage dedicated to them: the Little Picker’s Stage. Add petting zoos, puppet shows, carnival games and more, and it’s obvious the staff has worked hard to create a family-friendly atmosphere.
Another favorite aspect of MerleFest is that the music doesn’t stop when the festival ends. In fact, some of the best music of the whole weekend can be found in the campsites just up the road, where people of all ages and backgrounds meet for some pickin’, grinnin’ and chatting by the fire. Some folks arrive with their bandmates in tow, while others simply strap on their instruments and go on walkabout, meandering from one site to the next sitting in with whomever they meet. The site next to us had a full band by the end of the first night, complete with stand-up bass & accordion. A quick walk through the area reveals dozens of jam sessions, with pickers ranging from beginners up to folks so good you can’t believe they’re not on stage. All of this adds up to create an atmosphere and setting that just can’t be found at any other festival. It is uniquely MerleFest.