WILKESBORO, N.C. — MerleFest is perhaps the most laid back music festival out there. With approximately 80,000 people mingling on a community college campus, you’d think it might be hard to keep everything calm and under control. But utter chaos is never the case at this four-day event which concluded here Sunday (April 30). All things considered, the festival organizers do a great job of making it look easy.
Music fans who showed up throughout the week at Wilkes Community College seemed to be perfectly content just hanging out in a portable canvas chair, a wooden rail or even a patch of grass. The musicians — who ranged from modest folk singers to folk icon Pete Seeger himself — also took it in stride, with many of them sincerely grateful to play the festival, which will stage its 20th event next year.
Oh, sure, when you put the Grateful Dead singer-guitarist Bob Weir on stage with the Waybacks and suddenly bring out festival darlings Gillian Welch and David Rawlings — and then juice up the crowd with a frenzied finale of Bob Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone” — that can pretty much raise the dead, so to speak. But for the most part, everybody’s kicking back and doing that very elusive thing — listening. Or else dancing with wild abandon.
On Thursday night, John Prine charmed the crowd with his classics (“Angel From Montgomery”) as well as newer material (“Some Humans Ain’t Human”) for his first MerleFest appearance in a decade. The following night, mandolin hero Sam Bush soaked up the love from all the pickers in the crowd. Nickel Creek bridged the gap between the adults and teenagers with a lively and thoroughly entertaining set on Saturday night, including a memorable cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic.” And on Sunday, Emmylou Harris assembled several friends for an hour of comfortable country music. She also sat in during Welch’s set on Friday night. Welch and Rawlings returned the favor on Sunday.
Meanwhile, during the day, you could catch sets by high-caliber artists with roots in the area, including the Avett Brothers (who are indisputably stars in the making), Caitlin Cary & Thad Cockrell, Chatham County Line, Sarah Lee Guthrie & Johnny Irion, Claire Holley, Tony Rice, Steep Canyon Rangers, guitarist Bryan Sutton and even Doc Watson. The festival is named in honor of Watson’s late son, Merle. Richard Watson, who is Merle’s son, sat in with his grandfather on several occasions.
Texas could claim its share of artists on the roster, too, including Guy Clark, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Robert Earl Keen, Jimmy LaFave and Chip Taylor & Carrie Rodriguez. In addition, Nashville proved its musical reputation beyond mainstream country, with the Alison Brown Quartet, the John Cowan Band, Jerry Douglas, fiddler Casey Driessen, Béla Fleck & the Flecktones, the Grascals, Jim Lauderdale, Darrell Scott and Wayne Scott popping up throughout the extended weekend.
Other artists appearing included Rory Block, the Duhks, Hot Tuna, the Lee Boys (with a rousing gospel set on Sunday morning), the Mammals, Peter Rowan, Mike Seeger, Larry Sparks and the Wilders, among many others. It is estimated that 44,031 people paid to come in, with a preliminary estimated total attendance (including volunteers and school children) of 82,618.
Part of the fun of wandering from stage to stage — there were 13 total — is listening to the artists’ choices of cover songs, usually as the finale. Aside from that roots icon Britney Spears, you could also hear versions of songs written or made famous by The Band, the Carter Family, Dylan (on more than one occasion), George Jones, Bill Monroe, Randy Newman, Ralph Stanley, Townes Van Zandt, Don Walser and Lucinda Williams. If National Public Radio’s Southern affiliates had a commercial radio station, it would sound a lot like this.
Because it’s a folk festival at heart, many songs (like “Wayfaring Stranger”) could be heard more than once, although some lyrics could hardly be duplicated. One particular favorite from the Double Decker String Band: “Old folks, old folks, better get to bed/Before you put the devil in the young folks’ head.”
Once again, the festival recognized aspiring talent with songwriting and instrumental competitions and gave the winners a chance to showcase on the Cabin Stage in between the headliners. And because nearly all of the artists performed more than once, it’s a breeze to schedule out a personalized plan of attack. Fortunately, the weather fully cooperated this year with temperatures in the 60s and 70s during the day and not a drop of rain.
As if that was not enough, no alcohol is served at the festival, so your view is never blocked by the drunk guy determined to stand up in front of you. The lines are reasonably short and prices are affordable. Plus, if you were wondering where to peruse the Southeast’s largest selection of home-dyed blouses and skirts, MerleFest is your answer. Vendors also sold pottery, jewelry, brooms and handcrafted acoustic instruments. Some folks even found refuge in a tent near the back of the grounds which offered no amenities other than shady relief from the sun.
In addition, kids are welcomed at the festival, and they seemed intrigued by Pete Seeger’s colorful and outrageous stories at the children’s tent — although the adults outnumbered the young’uns at least four-to-one. That’s OK, though. If you can get kids in the habit of appreciating the arts, MerleFest may have a built-in audience for years to come.