While there are quite a few notable festivals that begin earlier than late April, many of us kick off the festival season by trekking to not your normal community college, the Wilkes Community College in the rolling hills of north central North Carolina where MerleFest has been held every year since 1988. Named in honor of Merle Watson who lived nearby, 2014 marks the second festival since Merle's father, Doc Watson, passed away. And as sorely his presence is continually missed, his guiding spirit and the music endures.
"Through Doc's guidance and artistic creativity, MerleFest has grown into a world-class festival. MerleFest will always honor the memory and contributions of Doc and his son Merle,” says Ted Hagaman, festival director. “As always, we take pride in the diversity presented in this year’s lineup. That is a credit to Doc Watson, who always believed that all genres of music should be celebrated.”
I am a relative newcomer to MerleFest. This will only be my 15th consecutive festival I have attended and worked as a volunteer. I get goosebumps just thinking about it being just one week away. This year's festival, April 24-27, offers over 130 artists on 13 stages on the ever expanding campus of Wilkesboro Community College. Some of the stages are indoors, some outside, with the main stage being the Watson Stage which is the only stage that has reserved seating for evening performances. With so many different performers on the Watson Stage, during change overs, there are 20-30 minute sets at The Cabin Stage just off to the right that keeps the music going.
MerleFest also does a great job of mixing well known headliners, which this year includes Alan Jackson, legendary Merle Haggard, Ricky Skaggs (who, as he gets older is beginning to look a lot like his idol, Bill Monroe), Daily & Vincent and Dr. Ralph Stanley, with crowd favorites, Peter Rowan, Donna the Buffalo, Jim Lauderdale, The Kruger Brothers, Sythian and Sam Bush, with invigorating, not as well known performers, such as Red June, The Steel Wheels, Town Mountain, Holly Williams and Todd Snider.
Those artists are representative of what makes MerleFest so special. The music. It has always been about the music. Both tobacco and alcohol-free, and extremely family-friendly, it's about the music and the community of music. MerleFest offers a community outreach program, has the Little Pickers Stage that is primarily for children and the The Pickin' Place hosted by The Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society for local performers.
Primarily acoustic-based, MerleFest is still able to offer a wide selection of artists of many genres. But that does not mean amplified artists are not invited or cannot ply their trade. The de facto highlight for many, many fans is The Hillside Hour hosted by The Waybacks. Its genesis was in 2006 when Bob Weir jammed with The Waybacks, and many others, on several Grateful Dead classics. Then, in 2008 The Waybacks were asked to do a Saturday afternoon jam at The Hillside Stage. But, as James Nash (of The Waybacks) notes, "Rather than opt for the standard approach, we decided to something more adventurous." That resulted in performing a classic album in its entirety. Those albums have included, "Led Zeppelin II" Jimi Hendrix's "Are You Experienced," The Allman Brothers' "Eat a Peach," and last year's Dylan & The Band's "Before the Flood."
(Dr. Ralph Stanley)
Another highlight is Saturday night's Midnight Jam, which begins appropriately enough at midnight and goes to 3 or 4 in the morning. It is a good natured event where everyone wants to show everyone else how good they are. Needless to say, it is different every year as the roster is culled from that year's performers. This year it will include: Scythian, Keller Williams, Nora Jane Struthers and The Party Line, Peter Rowan, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Steep Canyon Rangers, Della Mae, Moore Brothers, The Steel Wheels, Donna the Buffalo, I Draw Slow, The Waybacks, Pete and Joan Wernick, The Deadly Gentlemen, Jim Lauderdale, South Carolina Broadcasters, Mandolin Orange, Mark Newton and Steve Thomas, Town Mountain and Lynda and Pattie. You never know what you will hear. For example, it was during one of these jams that I first heard David Rawlings sing "Girls Just Want to Have Fun" that brought the house down.
Another unique feature of the MerleFest is the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. Now in it's 22nd year, this year there were 567 entries in four categories (General, Bluegrass, Country and Gospel/Inspirational) and judges include Tift Merritt, Darrell Scott and host, Jim "That's Americana" Lauderdale. The finalists perform at the Austin Stage, and the the winners then perform at the Cabin Stage. Notable winners of previous years include Gillian Welch and Martha Scanlan.
(The Carolina Chocolate Drops)
A highly respected staple that keeps MerleFest true to roots music is commitment to the blues. Hosted each year by Roy Book Binder (who learned and traveled with the Reverend Gary Davis), the festival presents The Greatest Acoustic Blues Show on Earth. That is no overstatement as my highlight last year was hearing Stefan Grossman whom I first heard over 40 years ago, but because he lives in Europe had never seen him. I came to see him, but stayed and heard others I was not familiar with. This year features my two of favorite blues players, Rory Block and Eleanor Ellis.
While there are just too, too many special events at MerleFest, another one I am looking forward to is BanjoRama. Featuring the premiere players of the day, it demonstrates that despite all those banjo jokes you hear, the instrument that Earl Scruggs made indispensable is not only thriving but with the help of folks like Steve Martin and Bela Fleck we are in the midst of a banjo golden age.
I know I have left out so many quality artists whom I admire, but I want to take one last opportunity to mention a few more I am excited to see this year. First, are The Carolina Chocolate Drops who, like so many others, I discovered at a MerleFest years ago. Second, is the original line-up of The Duhks. Third, the great Roland White with whom I had breakfast when he was part of MerleFest's Bill Monroe Tribute.
While I always arrive a few days early, MerleFest will again partner with Nashville's Music City Roots Live From the Loveless Cafe on Wednesday, April 23 featuring various artists who will perform at the festival, including Town Mountain, Sierra Hull, Roy Book Binder and Josh Farrow,
For complete information on the festival, the entire line-up on a day-to-day basis, stage line-ups, where to stay, a map of the festival grounds and everything you need to know about what may well become your best four days of music visit:
All photos provided by MerleFest courtesy of the artists.