Merlefest has just capped its 30th festival, and what a year it was. The festival packed into four days a diverse array of artists, including festival favorites Scythian, stars like James Taylor, old masters like Happy Traum, innovators like Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas, and newer-comers like Mipso and the Contenders. Regardless of who was playing, some of the best stuff all weekend happened on the Hillside Stage, where a parade of well-loved acts had audiences crammed into one of the festival’s more unique intimate settings.
The hill in front of the Hillside Stage is very steep. Mind you, there is no amount of “verys” which could precede the word “steep” in that sentence, to truly convey how steep this hill is. It’s so comically steep that the signs someone placed one-fifth of the way up the hill warning you of the steep grade are pointless. By the time you’ve reached those signs, you’ve either nearly pulled a muscle or showed off the skills you honed over the winter at the rock gym. It’s not just the steepness that will test your dedication; it’s the mud, the ants, the poison ivy. Yet … on Saturday afternoon, I had no choice but to go for it.
The Avett Brothers were onstage with their band, paying tribute to the late Doc Watson. My family had found a tree off to the side of the hill, where we obtained some semblance of shade and hoped it would inspire our toddler to brave more hours of this. (The temperature was somewhere upwards of 85 degrees.) It was a comfortable enough spot, if you didn’t mind sitting smack against a slew of sweaty strangers clambering for the same small circle of shade, and if you were happy enough to not actually be able to see or hear what your had come to see and hear.
But this was the situation for much of Saturday especially: You could opt to slowly slip downhill on a blanket, as I did on Friday afternoon. You could show up very early and sit on the hill through other shows just to be assured a seat for one show later in the day that you really wanted to see. You could find a tiny triangle of bare ground between a place-holder chair and the strictly-enforced walkway (I did this for Sarah Jarosz’s set early on Saturday, knowing I would not fit in that space if the owner of the chair decided to return). You could squat on someone else’s chair or blanket and hope they didn’t mind if and when they returned. Or you could miss out.
Many fans decided to camp out in one place for the day, missing out on the rest of the festival. Or they parked their chairs there then left them to take up space while they enjoyed music elsewhere. The latter is pretty standard at festivals, but on the cramped hillside where navigating the labyrinth of placeholders is a little more complicated than just walking around a field, it detracted from the experience.
Climbing Up and Over
Doc Watson started Merlefest in 1987 to honor the memory of his son Merle, a gifted guitarist who died in a tragic tractor accident. The festival has since helped launch the careers of artists like the Avetts, and I couldn’t very well do my job covering it if I stayed under that tree in that couple-square-feet of shade, unable to see or hear anything, while one of Watson’s protege bands delivered an exquisite tribute right over there.
So I went for it. I found a river of people and jumped in.
The flow took me past the stage at a slow pace that allowed me to enjoy a verse and chorus before I had to shift my focus to trekking up the hill.
I was wearing Crocs, which aren’t exactly made for traversing muddy, steep hillsides, but I couldn’t turn around now. I started uphill with all the confidence of a “Fake It Till You Make It” bumper sticker, taking a cue from my muscle memory as a skier, climbing step-touch-step-touch sideways up the hill. My foot slipped and a stranger’s hand reached out to grab me. I started to wonder how many people had been helped up the hill by the hands of these strangers. There was something to say about humanity in that. But by this point, all I cared about was getting to the top of the hill. I wasn’t even listening to the music anymore, so focused was I on conquering the mud and steep grade.
From the top, I could see that every square inch of the hill was covered. I could see the little tree in the distance where my family sat huddled in a shadow like so many desert calves. The music at the top was almost as inaudible as it had been down there, but not quite, so I decided to head back down. If I thought climbing up mud in Crocs was a bad idea, climbing down in them was even worse. I suddenly felt seven feet tall with no idea how to manage my verticality. The only thing breaking the mud here was the occasional rock. I dug my toes in behind those, bent my knees, shifted my weight, and hoped.
Somewhere around halfway down the hill, the music hit me again, and I was grateful for it all.
The Avetts grew up on these old songs; it’s their native language. The day before, both Seth and Scott Avett had talked to me at length about the glory of its simplicity. (I’ll share the full interview soon.) Seth likened Doc’s music to meditation and Scott likened it to the color wheel — what lies at the heart of all music-making. That foundational wisdom, and the brothers’ connection to it, poured forth through their delivery of the songs, backed as they were by Tania Elizabeth on fiddle, Joe Kwon on cello, and Bob Crawford on bass.
This moment of heading downhill, being able to — at last! — both see and hear this talented band roll through music that’s in their bones, was the most fulfilling moment of the hour and I knew it couldn’t last. The nature of being on such a path is that you have to keep walking or get out of the way. There was nowhere to get out of the way to, so at some point I reached the bottom of the hill, where I headed off to find another show to watch.
As we made our way to another stage, my wife told me she’d heard the grandfather from another one of the families under the tree comment on the fact that they could neither see nor hear the muisc: “Are we just here so we can say we were here?”
That Music Though
Yes, so the heat was oppressive and the crowd was impossibly large — not just for the Avetts at the Hillside Stage. Later the same day when Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas were on the mainstage performing to a huge, packed crowd, Mipso was a stone’s throw away playing to an overflowing field in front of the Americana Stage, even as the Waybacks were delivering the so-popular-it-has-its-own-souvenir-T-shirt Hillside Album Hour (this year they performed the entirety of Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band). As thrilled as I am to see so many people enamored of this music, some of the community vibe and relaxed enjoyment was sacrificed in the process of navigating the dense crowd in the heat. At least it didn’t rain.
Of course, if the crowd and heat made the festival hard to love, the musical offerings didn’t suffer. One of Merlefest’s taglines is “Traditional Plus,” and there was more traditional this year than there was “plus.”
One of the main stage’s biggest draws was the Transatlantic Sessions, which is an incredible television experience. Live, it felt more like a really long, if impressive, open mic. I wanted to hear every artist onstage play a full set. While the songs they paraded out were exquisitly performed, it just didn’t connect as a festival concert experience. Luckily the Avetts, Sarah Jarosz, Steep Canyon Rangers (who were joined on the over-packed hillside by Sam Bush), and Sierra Hull all delivered stunning full sets elsewhere in the weekend.
But many of this year’s highlights were further down the lineup. Locust Honey on the traditional stage, a folky set from Peter Rowan, the main stage set from Stray Birds, Earls of Leicester on the hillside, and the instrumentalism of String Madness on the creekside stage. Newcomers and Wilkesboro natives, the Hook & Bullet, delivered a Shovels & Rope-ish set in the plaza that made me do everyone’s favorite dance craze, the white lady stomp. I Draw Slow, 10 String Symphony, and Chatham County Line were all on point.
There was something else going on that made up for the shortcomings, too.
Aside from the music itself, I couldn’t help but notice that people at Merlefest 2017 seemed to be coming with a heightened social awareness this year. It’s impossible to say if it’s the same crowd just wearing their views on their sleeves — often quite literally — or whether something about this year’s lineup brought out the socially conscious.
Typically, Merlefest is teeming with by Boy Scouts, church and school groups, small town banjo-toting Appalachian music-loving white people of a certain age. If this isn’t a slice of the real Western North Carolina (right up to the Bojangles strawberry shortcake), I don’t know what is.
And this year, it was hard to ignore the straight white men in the “Black Lives Matter” T-shirts and those in shirts with the Human Rights Campaign equality symbol on them. Old guys who might have otherwise looked like kind conservatives wandered around in Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren T-shirts. People of all genders, colors, and ages sported shirts with various feminist messages on them (“The future is female,” “Nevertheless she persisted,” etc.). A number of folks wore shirts they bought when they attended the Science March or the Women’s March or [Name Your Progressive Cause] March. Cars in the parking lot were covered in stickers shouting “No Pipeline!” and “Climate Change Is Real” and “Facts Not Fear” and on and on.
Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, 10 String Symphony, and others mentioned from the stage about the need they feel to spread peace through music, to point out how easy it is for a crowd of people this size to find common ground. Artists talked about the anxiety of our times and the power music has to help us transcend. Sam Bush took to the main stage with a white T-shirt on that just said “PEACE” in big bold letters, and delivered a bluegrass rendition of Woody Guthrie’s “Mister Charlie Lindbergh,” including its line that points out the absurdity of the phrase “America First.”
As I drove away at the end of Saturday, I couldn’t help but think of what bassist Ethan Jodziewicz said the day before: Festivals like this can show us what’s possible, and then we can take that awareness back into our daily lives. Considering that ultimate truth, it was hard not to embrace this year’s shortcomings along with its unmatchable awesomeness. Besides, one of the best things about this festival any year is seeing the crowd of children picking instruments and dancing in the grass. As long as they keep their ears open, we’ll all be all right.
Til next year, Merlefest!