MerleFest 2016: A Personal Journey
MerleFest 2016 was bookended by something I had never experienced there before: car troubles. On Friday my battery died and on Sunday, after a full night of rain, I had a flat tire. While those inconveniences prevented me from catching some performances, they did not inhibit my enthusiasm for being there, for my 15th consecutive Merlefest.
My annual visits to MerleFest began almost by accident. While I was a festival pro many years before, work and family hindered my multi-day musical adventures. Coming off a particularly brutal winter, I was looking for a road trip that would lift my spirits, and MerleFest was there to welcome me with open arms. As a fan of Doc and Merle Watson and traditional music, it was a natural fit for my interests. Now, it always kicks off my festival season.
While every MerleFest has its own personality, due to its changing lineups, there are some things I can always count on. Most notably, the festival is tobacco- and alcohol-free. MerleFest is about the music that is spread over 13 stages — outdoor, indoor, and under tents. There are several places that anyone can come and play, pick, and jam to their heart’s content. The staff cannot do enough for you. Plus, it is, as you would expect, family-friendly.
I always come down to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, a day or two ahead of the festival to volunteer. Wednesdays I’m at the RV lot that overlooks the WCC Campus, and Thursdays I’m part of the stage crew at the Watson Stage. The most laborious experience I’ve had there as a volunteer was the time we unloaded Zac Brown’s tractor-trailer — the whole thing. But this year I was enthusiastic as I got to help set up my friends Donna the Buffalo. Their set with Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale was one of my highlights. Lauderdale and Rowan sandwiched between Jeb and Tara, with David McCracken on the Hammond B-3, is my idea of heaven.
Speaking of highlights, another one is always the Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour on late Saturday afternoon. This year was no exception. From the outset, James Nash set a high bar for not only selecting the featured classic album, but also for selecting his special guests and song arrangements. If you read my two articles from last year, you’ll recall that Born in the USA with Joan Osborne on vocals was spectacular. So, I was wondering what direction Nash would take this year.
It began with “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” which served as an acknowledgement of four notable artists we lost since last year — B.B. King, Glenn Frey, Merle Haggard, and Prince, whose music was worked into the set. When we heard the first song, “Take it Easy,” we knew we had left Jersey’s working class struggles for the optimistic shores of Southern California. But, would it be Jackson Browne or the Eagles? Well, as you now know, it was the latter’s greatest hits, the biggest selling album ever. The album was done in sequence, and while “Easy” is a good cover song, “Witchy Woman” is far more difficult. Nash outdid himself on guitar and took the song to places I never knew were there. His traded licks with John Oates (more on him in a bit) was gorgeous — it sealed the deal, and we knew we were in for a special evening.
Along with Oates, Album Hour regulars Sam Bush and Jens Kruger were there, along with Nicki Bluhm on lead vocals and Lindsay Lou (of the Flatbellys) and Noah Wall (of the Barefoot Movement) on backing vocals. What a lineup, and it was fabulous.
After the Album Hour was over, most folks stayed on the hill for the set that followed: The Wood Brothers.
But perhaps my most memorable moment at this year’s MerleFest happened offstage, when John Oates told me that he had always wanted to play there — not just because it’s a premier festival, but because he knew and had played with Doc twice. The first time was in 1967, when he was a teenager. He was taking guitar lessons at the time and his teacher lived across the street. The teacher (whose name I foolishly forgot to write down) was a traditional musician who knew Doc. One day, Doc had a gig in town and dropped by to visit and play a little. When they began to jam, the teacher called John to join them. John then sat in with Doc during the performance that night. The second time he got to play with Doc was after Hall and Oates had made it big. He was returning home one evening and decided to drop by Philadelphia’s main folk club, the Main Point, just to see who was playing and unwind a bit. Doc was onstage and, again, Oates sat in.
Merlefest is full of these kinds of stories, stories, and more stories. An integral part of live music, and traditional music in particular, are the stories musicians tell. Nowhere is that more prevalent than with blues musicians. When we think of the blues, we have come to think of its pursuit as a sort of monolithic, hardscrabble life full of troubles, strife, racism, and more. What people have forgotten is that traditional blues musicians were entertainers.
What we think of the blues these days is something we’ve gotten from the recordings, but we forget that not only were popular songs of the day worked into blues musicians’ performances, but they were also storytellers. MerleFest is fortunate to have Roy Book Binder host (and play) a blues show on Saturday afternoon, each year. This year, his show was quite broad, from the cowboy blues of Britt Gully to more traditional Fruteland Jackson and Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. All are great storytellers, but Rucker is a master. I had seen him before and he had the audience spellbound, not just with his stories but with the way he told them. A marvelous afternoon of music.
This year seemed to be a proliferation of duos and bands with horns. The outstanding duos included Zoe and Cloyd from Asheville (whose self-ttled album was in my Top 10 last year) and Penny and Sparrow from Austin. The former do traditional music proud, while the latter (college roommates) are more in the modern duo vein like the Milk Carton Kids, and are about to make a name for themselves — think folk-soul. The bands with horns included one of the two unexpected biggest hits of the festival — Shinyribs, an octet fronted by the hip-shaking, belly-laughing soul of Kevin Russell. What a show: horns and swinging backup singers. Even Jim Lauderdale did a set on the Hillside Stage with horns, with John Oates sitting in.
The other unexpected big hit was the appearance of MerleFest first-timers,We Banjo 3, a quartet from Ireland. I had seen them before and as word spread throughout the fest, their audiences grew exponentially and included a rip-roaring, high energy Friday evening set with Scythian on the Watson Stage. Catch these guys when you can; you will not regret it. If you recall, I profiled them in the March 15 edition of this column. My enthusiasm has not waned.
Merlefest also features newish, younger bands each year. There were four that I found outstanding. First was Tellico from Asheville, some of whose members were previously in Asheville band Dehlia Low (another band I loved seeing at Merlefest). Featuring the lead vocals of Anya Hinkle and the guitar wizardy of Jon Stickley (who has his own John Stickley Trio), Tellico is a real treat. Their Relics and Roses album was a highlight of last year.
CMT Edge called the Barefoot Movement “one of the most promising bands on the bluegrass scene.” Interestingly enough, I was at that performance as CMT invited me to photograph the set they recorded for CMT’s internet series. I can honestly say that they are no longer merely “promising,” because they have arrived. Their new album, Live in L.A., is out on May 13.
The Brothers Comatose, comprised of two sets of brothers, serve up a southwestern-tinged and more rowdy-like stringband. They, too, should not be missed. They play the music I first heard over 40 years ago when bluegrass, jazz, folk, rock, and country, with a large dose of Gram Parsons, began to gel and take shape. Besides The Hillside Album Hour, Nicki Bluhm — who had no formal set of her own — sat in with the Brothers and did the vocals on a song called “Morning Time” from their City Painted Gold album.
Finally, Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys. From Michigan, they serve up an infectious blend of soul, folk, blues and jazz. NPR named their set on Mountain Stage one of the dozen best performances of 2015. I was there, and I do not disagree.
MerleFest would not be complete without string bands and the banjo. My two favorites were Foghorn Stringband and the South Carolina Broadcasters. The former is comprised of members of Caleb Klauder’s Country Band, an alter ego band that permits them to step outside and explore traditional music. I had seen Klauder’s Country Band several times, so I knew how good they were and was highly anticipating their appearances here. I really like this quartet, If there was any doubt in my mind about how good they are, that quickly disappeared when I saw them in Nashville last year at the AMA. Their set was sandwiched between Ricky Skaggs & Ry Cooder and Buddy Miller & Marc Ribot. They more than held their own.
The South Carolina Broadcasters have become my annual favorites. They describe their sound as “primitive bluegrass from the foothills.” This trio of guitar, mandolin, and, most notably, the banjo of Ivy Sheppard. Their music not only takes me back to my farm days and nights as a child in Appalachia, but serves up some spine-tingling, lost-in-time-and-space, cutting-edge music. No, this is not a modern take on traditional music; it is traditional music itself.
Insofar as the banjo is concerned, can it get any better than Alison Brown? I can never get enough of her playing, and her band. By the way, if you ever get to attend the AMA in Nashville, drop by Brown’s record label, Compass, on Wednesday afternoon. They have an open house, complete with local brew, great hot dogs, and music performed in the studio. They are gracious hosts and is a wonderful way to begin AMA week.
Last, and certainly not least, were this year’s headliners: Jason Isbell, David Rawlings Machine, Old Crow Medicine Show, John Prine, Brandi Carlile, Steep Canyon Rangers, Jerry Douglas, the Kruger Brothers, Scythian, Mike Farris, and Sam Bush. They require no elaboration.
I want to thank my fellow ND photographers Jaime Wykle, James McKelvey and Willa Stein and ND Editor Kim Ruehl for covering so many of the artists that weekend and sharing their photos with me. You will also note that the slideshow below contains more photos than I have ever featured and includes many more artists than those noted above. Please take the time to view them as they serve to demonstrate the depth and breadth of MerleFest and speak to why so many folks — myself included — call it the best festival in the country. It should be on your bucket list.