another saturday night @ merlefest
We arrived in the afternoon, at about 2:45. It was hot, especially for the mountains of North Carolina. Tift Merritt was completing her set, and it was my own loss, and poor sense of timing, that i missed most of it. The crowd was attentive and appreciative, and one does sense that there is in her future an evening performance on the main stage. One of the strengths of Merlefest is the passing of the baton to the next generation (I have witnessed this with Nickel Creek and the Duhks), and such a venue would be good both for her and the festival.
Moving into the evening, the focus was really on three acts: Doc Watson and friends, Emmylou Harris and Sam Bush. Doc Watson performed with a band that included his grandson Richard on guitar and Sam Bush on the fiddle. Doc seemed to be in good spirits, and I continue to be amazed that he is able to perform at the age of 86 (please forgive the “agism”)! He ran through a number of standards (“I Still Miss Someone”, “Columbus Stockade Blues”, “Deep River Blues”) and one of the additional highlights was a medley that included “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On”, and “Tutti Frutti”. His set concluded with the traditional song in memory of Merle. It was written by a friend of Doc’s, and is sung by another friend (I cannot recall either name); it is one of those Merlefest rituals that means more to me in some years than in others. This year it seemed to have an added meaning, in that I listened more closely to the anticipation of Doc have Merle to “pick around with once again”. As Doc left the stage he said goodbye to the crowd with an additional “see you next year, God willing”. For those steeped in the biblical tradition, it was a genuine expression of popular piety.
Sam Bush came later in the evening, and as always he stretched the Merlefest crowd in a direction that is healthy for the tradition. He embodies improvisational bluegrass at its best, and his energy level, late on a Saturday evening, was breathtaking, particularly given that he had already played on most every stage that day. It is no exaggeration to say that Sam Bush is integral to what Merlefest is all about. His enthusiasm for the festival is clearly returned by an adoring crowd that senses they are in the presence of a master.
Emmylou Harris took the stage in between Doc Watson and Sam Bush. She was introduced as a “matriarch of Americana music”; one sensed that she did not fully appreciate this designation, but she is something of a living legend, a mentor and an artist who has transcended the generations. She began with “Return of The Grievious Angel”, and then moved into “One of These Days”, “If I Could Only Win Your Love”, “Red Dirt Girl” and “Orphan Girl”. She then covered “Poncho and Lefty”, “Going Back To Harlan”, “Get Up John” (with Sam Bush on the fiddle), an acapella version of “Bright Morning Stars” (from Angel Band, one of my very favorite cds), “Your Long Journey” (written by the Watsons, and with an appalachian/scottish highland feel), and “Love and Happiness” (from her collaboration with Mark Knopler). She also offered “Bang The Drum Slowly”, a moving song in memory of her father, and the encore was “Leaving Louisiana in The Broad Daylight” (again, with Sam Bush accompanying).
It was a remarkable set, and it fully captured the breadth of Emmylou’s career, from the simplicity of Pieces of The Sky to the complexity of Wrecking Ball, from her interpretation of the works of others (with homage to George Jones and Merle Haggard) to a confidence in her own writing. Her voice was strong and clear, even if its range stays closer to the middle, which I sense as a strength.
I realize that I have now seen Emmylou Harris in concert four times over the past thirty years, and she continues to perform with an integrity and a clarity that is compelling. She represents “roots” or “americana” music (whatever that is!) in holding together the old and the new, the acoustic and the electric, the traditional and the progressive. On a Saturday evening in the cool mountains of western North Carolina, I had the sense that I was in the presence of our a “matriarch”, in that so much of what is good about our music has passed through her life into ours, and there is a sense that there is more to come.