Merlefest Showcases Acoustic Music With an Edge

Willie Nelson & Family Debuts, John Hartford Tribute Celebrated

There’s an edge to the springtime weather in the mountains around Wilkesboro, N.C. The air is crisp, even in direct sunlight. Temperatures plummet to the low 40s at night, cold enough to see your breath in the air. There’s also an edge to the music heard at MerleFest, the flagship Americana music festival in the United States held last weekend, April 27-30, on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. The 13th annual event, hosted by acoustic guitar icon Doc Watson in memory of his son Merle, a gifted guitarist and banjo player himself who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, kicks off the bluegrass festival season for many performers and attendees alike. The event this year opened with a first-time appearance by Willie Nelson on Thursday night and ended Sunday evening with a musical tribute to John Hartford.

MerleFest is four days of roots-based, mostly acoustic music, surprisingly good food, crafts and family activities, with non-stop performances on 14 stages. In addition to Watson, Nelson and Hartford, featured acts included Nanci Griffith & the Blue Moon Orchestra, Sam Bush, Kelly Joe Phelps, Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Laura Love, Laurie Lewis & Her Bluegrass Pals, Natalie MacMaster, IIIrd Tyme Out, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Jorma Kaukonen, Peter Rowan, Tish Hinojosa, Jerry Douglas, Donna the Buffalo, Tony Rice, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, John “The Cow” Cowan, and the Freight Hoppers, among others. The event this year again drew an estimated crowd of 62,000 — a number which includes performances for 10,000 students at local schools and also 2,300 volunteers who staff the festival.

“My only frustration is there are many times I want to be hearing something, and I can’t,” comments mandolin wizard Bush, echoing the only negative comment you’ll hear from attendees at the festival. “There are just too many choices. But I guess if that’s the worst problem one has, it’s not too big a deal,” he laughs.

The weather was chilly for the Willie Nelson concert, which drew a crowd of thousands — the biggest Thursday night in the festival’s history. Heavy rain hit after midnight, continuing through the day Friday and in spurts Saturday, clearing enough on Sunday morning to send everyone home with a sunburn. But the ankle-deep mud at some stages didn’t dampen the spirits of those in attendance. The experienced crowd of attendees threw on rain ponchos and boots and trudged on, not willing to miss a single note on stage at this unique event.

“I do look forward to coming here,” said Bush, who has played MerleFest all 13 years. “It’s like we wait all winter, and then we meet up with our pals. Even though a lot of us live in Nashville, we don’t see each other that much because of schedules and things. So you get out of your house, the winter’s over, and you go to MerleFest.”

The reunions among musicians take place on stage as well as at backstage jam sessions, with special guests and combinations of folks who don’t normally perform together. Bush sat in on mandolin with The String Cheese Incident, and also joined Nelson for a few songs Friday night. Dobro player Tut Taylor and banjo picker Pete Wernick joined the band Nickel Creek Sunday afternoon for a set at the Americana Stage. Darol Anger, Wernick and Chris Thile (young mandolin master from Nickel Creek) joined Donna The Buffalo Sunday afternoon for a “Boogie Dance” at the popular Dance Stage. “Girls for Merle” was a set from ace women musicians Alison Brown, Claire Lynch, Missy Raines, Barbara Lamb, Laurie Lewis, Sara Watkins, Rhonda Vincent and Sally Van Meter on the main stage Friday night. Saturday night closed out with Rowan’s Free Mexican Air Force, which included Douglas, Lewis, Bush and Rice as frequent fliers. Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys were joined on stage Sunday afternoon by Vincent, Jeanette Williams, Lewis, Jim Lauderdale and Gillian Welch for duets with Ralph. Watson himself rocked out with the members of Chesapeake, David Johnson, Jack Lawrence and Bush Saturday night at the Dance Stage for a “Honky Tonk Dance,” drawing a huge audience that only had room to jostle slightly in time to the music, shoulder-to-shoulder on the dance floor, as Doc belted out “Tutti Frutti.”

Another unique thing about MerleFest is that over half the crowd appears to be in their 20s, and many families bring the kids along. Babies in backpacks and strollers are quite common, as are barefoot couples dancing in the grassy area to the left of the main Watson stage. Tie-dyed dresses, variously pierced body parts, tattoos and dreadlocks are just as common as the retired couples from the Midwest who arrived in their RVs and campers. An entire stage was devoted to entertainment and activities planned especially for children. A large, furry raccoon (the mascot on the MerleFest logo), roamed the festival grounds, along with an eight-foot-tall silver robot that looked like a cross between Darth Vader and the Tin Man. A huge sand sculpture of a bluegrass band was being constructed during the weekend, in the center of the campus. “It’s no coincidence that when festivals get bigger, they start getting younger,” Bush commented. “They want to do what we were doing when we were their age — camp out and listen to music all night, and have fun.”

When asked how he felt about having a following so young — backstage after a two-hour marathon set with three encores — Nelson smiled, “It ain’t bad.” The MerleFest crowd was with Nelson 100 percent Thursday night, as he played hit after hit to an audience that obviously knew the lyrics to most of the songs as well as he did. Young couples swing danced in the grass, and when Nelson sang “Good morning America, how are you?” the house lights came up and all answered, even though it was actually closer to midnight. Two good old boys in flannel and ponytails in the crowd sat in appreciative silence through most of the concert but couldn’t restrain themselves from bursting loudly into song on the chorus of “Seven Spanish Angels.” All joined Willie in harmony, and Bush played a blistering tremolo mandolin break on “Amazing Grace.”

Nelson said he had been trying for years to get to MerleFest and that he was extremely pleased to be there this year. He counts himself as one of Watson’s biggest guitar fans and said that he would love to perform with him sometime, perhaps even record a bluegrass album. He talked about his new blues album, slated for release August 29, which will include blues artists from the Austin area as well as duets with Susan Tedeschi on “Kansas City” and “Crazy,” plus “The Thrill Is Gone” and “Night Life” with B.B. King. Nelson’s Honky Tonk Heroes album (also featuring Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Jennings and Billy Joe Shaver) is currently topping the Americana radio chart. Nelson described his newly released solo album The Drummer and Me as “a straight country album with a steel guitar and fiddle … and some songs of mine from the distant past.”

On the topic of the Americana radio format and the future of events like MerleFest, Nelson commented, “Oh, I love it. I hope it grows and grows. I think there’s definitely a lot of people who like the format. There are a whole lot of artists who are not getting played (on mainstream radio) who do get a chance on the Americana stations.”

MerleFest closed out Sunday evening with a musical tribute to Hartford, the 63-year-old dancing bluegrass banjo player/ fiddler typically dressed in a black coat and tails with a derby hat, who is probably most well-known as the composer of the song, “Gentle on My Mind.” BMI reports that the song has had more than seven million broadcast performances on radio and television in the U.S. alone.

“I am tremendously honored by this,” Hartford announced at the beginning of the Sunday evening set in his honor. “I can’t tell you what it means to me, and especially at MerleFest. I first saw Doc Watson at the University of Illinois in the early ’60s. I thought he was the most amazing string musician I had ever seen, and it still stands.”

Hartford started out his portion of the show with a personal tribute to some of the musicians who had influenced him: Benny Martin, Lester Flatt, Earl Scruggs and Bill Monroe. He introduced his band (Bob Carlin, Mike Compton, Larry Perkins and Chris Sharp), and then introduced himself with a double flip of the derby as “The Old Bald Spot on the Top of the Head,” as he bowed deeply and showed the audience the aforementioned spot. John’s son, Jamie Hartford, was up next with his new rockabilly-edged band. “I learned a couple of my father’s songs, I guess by osmosis,” he said, “listening to records when he wasn’t around. It was kind of a way to be with my dad when I needed to be.”

Tribute hosts David Holt and Bush were joined on stage next by Darol Anger and Mike Marshall for a heartfelt rendition of Hartford’s monotone a capella classic, “Hey Babe, You Wanna Boogie?” Joined by Wernick, Mark Schatz and Tim O’Brien, the band then played a number of Hartford classics, interspersed with personal comments. Bush belted out “With a Vamp in the Middle” and “Steam Powered Aereo-Plane,” and commented that “without John’s band [which at that time included Taylor, Norman Blake and Vassar Clements], there wouldn’t be anything that people call newgrass music. John Hartford is the Father of Progressive Bluegrass Music.”

“I don’t try to imitate John’s style on the banjo,” Wernick commented backstage, “but he’s one of my main influences because of his attitude and the way he approaches his art. He will go out on the edge and look around and do a lot of daring things, and just really do it from the heart. That’s a real inspiring thing to see in a musician. It’s a fearlessness that really underlies the greatness.”

John showed us all that we could do anything we want to do, as long as we believe in it,” O’Brien agreed.

Diagnosed with lymphatic cancer in 1980, Hartford has been in remission for most of that time. The last couple of years have been more difficult for him, with immune system and anemia complications. He appears a little weaker and thinner to those who know and love him, but the music still transforms him in the same way it always has. When band member Compton cut down on the Monroe-influenced mandolin break on ” The Cross-Eyed Child,” Hartford’s face lit up like a 10-year-old boy on Christmas morning who has just laid eyes on his first bicycle. It’s obvious to everyone that Hartford definitely plans on being back at this festival, next year and for many years to come. Described fondly as “a tough old bird” by band mate Perkins, Hartford always seems to find a way to persevere.

The set continued with “The Julia Belle Swain,” sung by Marshall, “All in My Love for You” from Wernick and “Gentle on My Mind” from O’Brien.

Anger, who came up with the idea of hosting the Hartford Tribute, recalled purchasing Hartford’s Aereo-Plain album when he was in college. “Hearing Vassar Clements’ fiddle coming out of those speakers, I remember thinking, ’My life has changed. Everything is going to be different because of this record.’ And it was,” he laughed. “Another thing that John taught me was that anything worth doing is worth doing to the point of fanaticism,” Anger added, mentioning Hartford’s love for river boats, his research of old-time fiddle tunes, and his interest in Spencerian handwriting — of all things.

The super group closed out the Hartford tribute, and MerleFest, with the fiddle tune, “Squirrel Hunters,” which Holt and Wernick described as having a “really wise, old feel” to it, a song that sounded like “it would go on forever” — both qualities his buddies also attribute to Hartford. John rejoined the crew on stage and fiddled the tune alongside his devotees, commenting again how deeply honored he was by the program. Urging the audience “not to take any of this seriously,” with one more deep bow and a double flip of the derby hat, Hartford signed off once again as “The Old Bald Spot on Top of the Head.”