WILKESBORO, N.C. — Every year, the campus of Wilkes Community College here transforms into one of the most spectacular music festivals in the country — MerleFest. A tribute to the late Merle Watson, MerleFest is a comprehensive gathering of American roots music and culture, with this year’s festival featuring performances from Rosanne Cash, Vince Gill, Patty Loveless, Mindy Smith, Gillian Welch and dozens more.
Friday, April 30
My Friday morning began at the River’s Edge campground where a few thousand music enthusiasts were slowly emerging from their tents for the festival’s first full day. I shuttled the short distance over to the college and headed straight for the Watson Stage where Bering Strait (a Nashville band by way of Obninsk, Russia) were tearing up a few rock-tinged numbers. After several songs, I glanced at my schedule and saw that another Nashville group, Old Crow Medicine Show, were due to start at the Americana Stage. I hurried over to find them in full swing, rousing the thousand or so onlookers with punked-up old-timey songs about tobacco, equine animals and wrongdoing. It was only 11 a.m. and already Old Crow had the fogies and hippies spinning around in the grass like toy tops. Later, at the banjo competition on the Lounge Stage, Mitsutu Terada of Hamamatsu, Japan had just walked off the stage exclaiming, “Bluegrass forever!” as he held his banjo over his head. He later gave me a show bill promoting his band back home in Hamamatsu.
By 1 p.m. it was time to head over to the Creekside stage where Doc Watson (Merle’s father who serves as the festival’s presiding ringmaster) would be playing an early afternoon set. The lawn in front of the stage was packed, and people risked life and limb to grab a steep perch on the muddy clay hillside to catch a glimpse of the master guitarist. After feeling like I had pretty much died and gone to heaven, I sneaked over to the Traditional Stage for the dance showcase. Inside the tent, 88-year-old Violet Hensley was kicking up her feet and playing a fiddle on top of her head — which already supported a large butterfly bonnet. When the session host tried to bring her segment to a close, Hensley put the fiddle behind her back and pretended not to notice — to the crowd’s delight.
Rain and sunshine traded off throughout the afternoon. At the Austin Stage, Jim Lauderdale, Kelly Willis and others looked on from the wings as the contestants performed during the finals of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. Standouts (though not the winners) were Kristin Cifelli with the song “Show Them” and Stayton Bonner, who amused the crowd with his tune “Me and My Poodle.” A short walk led back to the Americana Stage where Mindy Smith had finished her set early and was signing autographs behind the platform. Back at the Austin Stage, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings performed before a worshipping crowd of onlookers. After a sufficient period of swooning, I took the opportunity to check out the festival’s various vendors and tents before setting back in front of Adrienne Young & Little Sadie for a quick set.
By late afternoon I realized I was overdosing on great music and needed something to help calm my blood a bit. I found just the thing in the Dance Tent where contradance, a folk dance in which partners form two facing lines, replenished me for the evening ahead. The Derailers followed the contradance, then I headed back to the Lounge for short performances from the Waifs, Lauderdale, Young, Tara Nevins and Willis and her husband, Bruce Robison. The Waifs, one of Australia’s leading acoustic bands, put on a standout performance and were begged back on stage by a crowd that seemed unfulfilled with a mere 30 minutes. With one more pass by the Watson Stage, where former Bill Monroe sideman Peter Rowan was dishing out reggae tunes, I returned to the campground for a second night of fireside songs.
Saturday, May 1
Saturday got off to a mercifully slow start, which allowed me to wander from stage to stage, letting the sounds of Mark O’Connor’s fiddle and Alison Brown’s banjo waft carelessly into my ears. By noon I had settled under a tree on the slope of the Hillside Stage with some friends. We ate funnel cakes and relaxed in the shade, listening to dreamy sets from Jerry Douglas and Edgar Meyer, Willis and Robison and Jorma Kaukonen with Sam Bush and Byron House. Several of us relinquished our cozy spots to go dancing and then moved from stage to stage, seeing sets by Welch, Patty Loveless, Tony Rice and Spider John Koerner.
On the Traditional Stage, the Reeltime Travelers from Johnson City, Tenn., yielded my favorite performance of the festival. Playing a brand of old-timey music that defied convention in stark and beautiful ways, the Travelers maneuvered through a penetrating series of songs that left the audience positively staggered. Most notable was the strength of original tunes penned by Martha Scanlon, a winner of last year’s songwriting competition, and the dancing and fiddling of bandmate Heidi Andrade. Perhaps most stunned by the performance were the Reeltime Travelers themselves, who looked out over the uproarious crowd wondering what sort of monster they had created.
Most of the remaining action Saturday night occurred near the Watson stage where Earl Scruggs played a birthday set with family and friends, including Vince Gill, who then turned in a stellar performance of his own. Donna the Buffalo ended the night with its ’grassy all-hands-on-deck jams. Welch and Smith punctuated the time between main stage performances with short, ethereal sets on the adjacent Cabin Stage.
Sunday, May 2
The place to be on Sunday morning was the Creekside Stage where the Acapella Fellas, the Gospel Jubilators and others treated listeners to a full slate of spiritual music. Meanwhile at the Pit venue, native North Carolinians showed off the Appalachian thumb-style guitar in an all-day workshop. Sunday also featured sets from Lauderdale, Watson and David Grisman before a finale from Rosanne Cash.
As the afternoon wore on and the crowd thinned out, I realized what an extraordinary thing I had just experienced: four days surrounded by some of the most talented and gracious musicians in American roots music and their fans (many of whom were aces with the strings themselves). Beyond that, something at MerleFest suggested a certain kinship that extended beyond just a love a good music. Driving back across the hills to Nashville I recalled a conversation I had with Boone, N.C., clog dancer Arthur Grimes.
“I would love this music whether I was a clog-dancer or a tap-dancer or whatever!” he said. “It don’t matter. It’s in my blood. It’s who I am.” A few minutes later Arthur joked that he plans to marry Alison Krauss. “But that’s secret,” he said. “Shhhhh!”