By now you you have read Kim’s enchanting piece on this year’s MerleFest, now comes my take on MerleFest at 30. Rather than a blow by blow, I’ll go with some takeaways. Here now are mine for MerleFest’s 30th edition.
This is not to take anything away from Doc Watson’s spirit that hovers over the festival, and the many sets that were devoted to his songs, stories, and influence on both his contemporaries and and later geneartions. Doc was well aware that music was a changing thing, that it moves on and finds many different ways to settle itself in our hearts, minds, and lives. The festival is a testament to both his music and its many permutations.
1. Bluegrass, Bluegrass, Bluegrass and More Bluegrass
While Bill Monroe’s presence will be forever felt in the world of bluegrass, its journey is far from over. From the steep Hillside Stage to the watery Creekside, not only was bluegrass more prevalent than in recent years, its influences permeated the festival. My grass is blue, indeed.
At one end is Del McCoury — the undisputed master — and at other ends are Sam Bush, whose significance in its change cannot be overstated; Bela Fleck, Alison Brown, and Jens Kruger, who have taken the banjo into parts unimagined just a few years ago; and the many younger, vibrant bands that keep the music forever young and inspiring. It was one whirlwind experience.
Individual highlights of those more traditionally inclined included the Reunion Jam with Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, and Jerry Douglas, who mixed it up quite a bit; The Steep Canyon Rangers; Chatham County Line; Bryan Sutton Band; Mountain Heart; Mipso; Sierra Hull; Sarah Jarosz; and my discovery of the weekend, the Darin & Brooke Aldridge band.
Bela Fleck’s lone set was mellow in tone, but it was a sweaty one in the heat of a Saturday sun that beat down on him (and the crowd) without mercy. He playfully pushed the boundaries with some inside jokes thrown in for good measure, without being overly esoteric. The Kruger Brothers did a sunset jam that followed the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour (where Jens Kruger is always a special guest) and a lovely Sunday morning set with the Kontras string quartet, doing selections from their new album.
The MVPs of the festival were Sam Bush and Peter Rowan, who seemed to be everywhere. Rowan, of course, was a Bluegrass Boy, so his pedigree is impeccable. His numerous sets were varied, from traditional to Hawaiian to Panama Red. Bush is distinguished in his own right, being at the forefront of pushing bluegrass’ limits for 45 years now, both as sideman and as leader, from New Grass Revival to his work with John Hartford, Vassar Clements, and Emmylou Harris. His own band now has pushed those boundaries even further into jam band territory while he plays the meanest mandolin you could ever imagine. Plus, he is an integral sideman in the Album Hour, filled in for McCoury in a Steep Canyon Rangers set, and was the final guest on Donna the Buffalo’s Saturday Night Jam.
2. The Avett Brothers
The Avett Brothers were the headliners on opening night. I heard several folks later say that they had never seen an opening night so crowded as this year. Not only are they BIG in Americana, they are local boys made good. Good enough to have three tour buses in the parking lot. They certainly have come a long way since first appearing at MerleFest some 12-14 years ago, when I witnessed firsthand the brothers stompin’ and hollerin’ on one of the smaller stages.
But they did not stop at just a main set. They also showed up for their father Jim’s Gospel Hour Sunday morning and at a songwriting workshop and a set of Doc’s songs and stories. While they had played the festival before, this time the Avett Brothers stayed all four days.
I was also fortunate to be at Kim’s interview with Seth and Scott to take a few photos. They were humble and gracious to a fault.
3. Transatlantic Sessions
As with the Avetts crowd the night before, never have I seen a Friday night so jampacked with so many adoring fans who seemed to know not just the soloists, but all the crack members of the band as well. Put together by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain, and hosted by Douglas, the Transatlantic Sessions have appeared all over the world. But being North Carolina, they also had a special native who sat in: James Taylor. While the other special guests, Maura O’Connell, Sierra Hull, Declan O’Rourke, and Sarah Jarosz would have been enough to satisfy any roots music aficionado, Taylor and his songs put it over the top, and the crowd let it show.
The Transatlantic band was perfection personified, but I’d like to single out Joe Newberry for special recognition. Not only was he an equal in that international band, he also backed up many of the students and youngsters who played all over the festival’s stages.
4. Compass Records Revue
This was, I believe, a first for MerleFest, a showcase devoted to artists of a single label, our good friends at Hillbilly Central in Nashville. As their AmericanaFest Wednesdays are a not-to-be-missed open house, I was not going to let this one slip by, even if it meant I could not catch some other sets I hated to miss.
That said, you could not ask for a better, more congenial host than Alison Brown. While her own band did not play, she sat in with the others, including a short duo set with Jens Kruger, special guest Peter Rowan, and what I had been dreaming of, Claire Lynch. I met Lynch years ago and we had a nice long chat, touching on many things, but most of all Flatt & Scruggs. Ever since then, I had dreamed of those two performing together, as I see them as the modern day version of that seminal duo. Their songs together, like a few on record together, did not disappoint, and I am still hoping for a duo album sometime.
The Revue got to showcase two extraordinary talents that beg for wider exposure: John Doyle and his guitar and an Americana band from Dublin, I Draw Slow, which includes a banjo. They alone could be their own Transatlantic Session. These Irish musicians have incorporated the best of American(a) music and made it distinctively their own. Moreover, IDS’s newly released Turn Your Face to the Sun is my favorite band album of early 2017.
5. Donna the Buffalo’s Saturday Night Jam
Donna the Buffalo is the world’s preeminent roots band and is adept enough to jam with the best of them. Led by Jeb Puryear and Tara Nevins, they sync with a wide latitude and longitude of musicians throughout the world and its many genres.
While their late night jams at other festivals, particularly the family of Grassroots festivals in Florida, North Carolina, and New York, can go on ’til the wee small hours of the morning, at MerleFest there are time constraints. So they had to fit everyone into a 90 minute set, with little down time.
After a couple of opening numbers to get the crowd back into the groove of things (Sam Bush had just finished his set a half hour before), and to limber up their own fingers, the guests then came fast and furious. First up was old friend Peter Rowan, whom Puryear thanked for touring with the band last year to raise awareness of getting money out of politics. Needless to say, it did not work. But that did not impede Rowan and his right-hand man, Chris Henry.
The first thing Claire Lynch said when she took the stage was, “I guess I’m part of the Herd now.” The she led the ensemble into a howling “T for Texas.” Call it bluegrass with some jam spread on top. Then they quickly switched gears when John Doyle appeared to display his nimble guitar work and pushed Puryear to keep up. Sweet.
Next, in quick succession, came Bela Fleck and Jim Lauderdale. Fleck and Lauderdale are opposites: Whereas the latter has a bit of the showman in him, the former often demures, but he did a kind of dueling banjos with Nevins and her metal washboard armor. Shawn Camp, who had dropped his Lester Flatt flattop for an electric, proceeded to rock the casbah. Camp, Fleck, and Pete Wernick all stayed and became part of the band, but took solos when warranted.
But nothing had prepared us for the final guest, Sam Bush, who led the assembled masses into a spiraling jam of “Wabash Cannonball” that just kept going upward. But it had to end, and so it did, and they closed the set with a plea for peace, love, and understanding. With the Compass Records Jam and this one, I had no need to stay up till 3 a.m. Midnight Jam. I was sated.
Now, on to the photos. Please note that the photos of Del McCoury, Transatlantic Orchestra, and the Reunion Jam are by Bob Alexander. I was also fortunate to have ND regular Todd Gunsher there for a day, and James McKelevy. Jim was one of the first folks I met when I began going to the festival 16 years ago. He has also been going and photographing them for 25 years now. His festival photos over the years are part of the Southern Folklife Collection. I urge you to check them out.