Merlefest 2011 gets going
For years, I’ve heard stories about Merlefest. Many of them talk of the community – the late-night impromptu picking sessions back at the camp, the folks who have been coming here year in and out, who have become accustomed to their spot in the field, their site at the camp. Who know the people sitting next to them, where they’re from, and what instrument they play. Everyone has a story of a wide-eyed Merlefest discovery, whether it’s the first time they saw Tony Rice, or some lesser-known newcomer who won the songwriting contest that year. So storied is Merlefest in the Americana psyche, I’ve developed a fairly strong vicarious impression of the place through the years.
In reality, Merlefest is a bit different from many music festivals to which I’m accustomed. Where others tend to exist out in the middle of nowhere – on a ranch, a hillside, some out-of-the-way haven which comes to life only for the purpose of the festival each year – Merlefest lives on the campus of a local community college. This gives it a sort of county fair feeling, with merch booths near the entrance, and rows of DIY seating near the stage. Surrounded by buildings and parking lots, it’s hardly removed from the community in which it exists. There’s a definite sense that many of the festivarians come from nearby simply because this it the thing that’s going on around these parts. That the festival showcases the legends and rising stars of acoustic music, is just a bonus. Not to ignore the scores of folks who drive down from the Northeast – or, hell, from Canada in some cases – but it certainly leaves the impression this is more of a community festival which has blown up through the years, rather than a gathering of high-profile artists who happen to take over some random community.
Last night, I arrived at Wilkes Community College for my first ever Merlefest, just in time to catch the end of Del McCoury’s set on the mainstage. It seemed an appropriate way to kick off the festivities, considering the festival’s long, close ties with emergent bluegrass.
But, underscoring the community’s determination to remain fluid and present great rootsy music, the first night progressed like a march through various offshoots of Americana. There was Del’s classic bluegrass style, like I mentioned. Next was Randy Travis, who’s celebrating 25 years of his career with a special collection – Anniversary Celebration, due June 7, and featuring duets with everyone from Broadway darling Kristen Chenoweth to Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson, to Zac Brown Band. This night, the way the time slots panned out, Travis was sort of opening for Brown and his band – a passing of the torch, perhaps, or just a coincidence in scheduling. Regardless, Travis’ old school country pop hits – “On the Other Hand,” “Forever and Ever Amen” – set a good stage for Brown to swing the pendulum harder toward a little rock and roll.
Indeed, the latter’s energy was undeniable. Not so much a fan of their recordings, myself, I have to admit their presence is infectious. Brown has that gift for getting you ready to party from the first note, and his band of dexterous instrumentalists took off like a slingshot through a few epic jam solos. (At one point, they pulled up “mad scientist” Casey Driessen for a fiddle solo, which held enough dynamic fire as to pull the song miles away from its country roots.)
Today’s schedule has been packed full of some notable up-and-comers, like Town Mountain, Lost Bayou Ramblers, Corb Lund (who took to the dance tent for a rousing honky tonk set tonight), and more. Jerry Douglas started the evening off with Omar Hakim on drums and Viktor Krauss on bass, picking through a remarkable selection of instrumentals before hitting the mic for his own dobro-spun rendition of “Hey Joe.” Sonny Landreth followed with some guitar-heavy swamp rock. Later on, we have the Emmit-Nershi Band, the Doobie Brothers, and a dance party played out by Scythian. Which says nothing of what I’m most looking forward to tomorrow (Tony Rice Unit, Sarah Jarosz, Crooked Still, Lyle Lovett, and the midnight jam, to name a few).
Stay tuned here for more updates and outtakes. Quite clearly, we’ve only just begun.