That ringing in the ears that comes from prolonged exposure to the high pitched plunking of strings stretched over catskin. There is no known cure.
MerleFest is a joyous annual celebration of old-time high and lonesome backed by all things stringed. But if you misread the schedule for opening day, arriving four full hours before the festivities officially begin, you’re liable to contract an incurable disease, Banjo-itis, spread by a barrage of the tinkly chop spilling non-stop from the main stage speakers.
The four day event held on the grounds of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. currently boasts a 75,000 attendance rate that has held steady for the last decade of its 28-year-old history. But at 10 o’clock on opening day Thursday morning, there’s nobody here but the vendors, the roadies- and those banjos. Don’t recognize the source material- maybe Greetings From Hell, Banjo Maniacs Greatest Hits, or Forever Banjo, but it goes on and on till the insides of your ears itch and your head rings like a ten penny finishing nail hit with a greasy ball peen hammer.
There’s not much do to distract yourself from the constant plinking. There’s a row of food vendors under a circus tent big enough to put the Ringling Brothers and their sisters and all the tigers and elephants in their menagerie under the big top, and the aromas arising from the cubicles are enough to make the wild beast in you crave fresh sustenance, but nobody will serve you til 3 o’clock, 5 hours from now. So there’s nothing much to do xcept wander round chewing on your fist and listening to the ringing in your ears.
But an hour or so in, you get a peek at how the pros set up for the coming events. Serious ‘Festers arrive pulling wagonloads of paraphernalia-tarps, blankets, coats, chairs, slickers, umbrellas and God knows what-all. When they get to the promised land and stake out a homestead in front of the main stage, they’re not content just to plant a camp chair or two. The tarps come out and are draped over the chairs to make what looks a tent camp for toddlers, wee structures dotting the landscape. There are only two stages running today, the main Watson stage and the adjacent Cabin stage, so once you staked out a spot, you’re dug in for the duration.
The festivities finally kicked off at 3 P.M with Emi Sunshine, an 11-year-old Tennessean who sings like she’s a weathered 50. During her soundcheck, she belted out a version of “Blackberry Winter” that rivaled Wanda Jackson for twang and whoop. Later in her set, she showed off her considerable yodeling skills, slipping slickly through high and lonesome tonsil territory on Jimmy Rodger’s “Blue Yodel # 6.” There’s still a lot of little girl in her voice, but she handled herself like a pro, staying in time and on key throughout her set, dueting with her bass-playing daddy on some fine family style harmony.
Asheville’s Tellico was up next, on the Cabin Stage, dishing out straight-up bluegrass of the Alison Krauss persuasion. Frontperson Angela Hinkle mirrors Krauss’ nasal magnificence accompanied by Jerry Douglas clone Aaron Balance on guitar, Jed Willis on banjo and mandolin and Stig Stiglits on bass, featured on vocals on a funky hokum version of “Just Another Saturday Night.” Their 30 minute set seemed to fly by, easy to digest but seemingly lost on an apathetic crowd who seemed too jaded to give them more than just a few desultory claps for some smoothly rendered ‘grass that rivaled the bigger names on the bill.
Donna the Buffalo turned in their usual Grateful Dead impersonation but really shone when Jim Lauderdale came out. Lauderdale did his George Jones impersonation on his original “You Don’t Seem To Miss Me,” a huge hit for Patty Loveless in ’97. “I love doing my songs with Donna,” Lauderdale says, and its no wonder- the Buffalo can twang like Buck Owens’ Buckaroos, putting out enough Bakersfield to pave over MerleFest grass tenfold. Loveless did Lauderdale another favor on her ’95 recording When Fallen Angels Fly with his song “Halfway Down.” It’s a rocker with a double dose of twang and The Buffs do it up right, getting the afternoon crowd riled up enough to show it’s growing vocal power in numbers by roaring back the chorus at him.
Guest Peter Rowan changed the vibe and the genre the second he stepped up, looking like a rhinestone cowboy but singing like a Rasta on “Pullin’ The Devil By The Tail.” Rowan is a big reggae fan, saying that “The chop in bluegrass that gives it that drive and the skank in reggae which is the guitar part, in a lot of ways they’re the same thing. They don’t do the same thing all the time, but they overlap a lot of ways.” Fiddler Tara Nevins provided the chop, but Rowan was the reggae spirit, bouncing up and down to the funky riddims. Rowan added more color to the set when the Buffalo kicked off the Zydeco classic “Hot Tamale Baby,” re-routing it mid song by inserting the country gospel staple “Working On a Building” that he sang with Bill Monroe as one of his Bluegrass Boys from ’64- 67.
The Wernick Bluegrass Jam Camp was an interesting spectacle. Anybody, regardless of ability, can sign up for the course 4 days before the festival and in that time founder Pete Wernick promises to have whipped you into good enough shape to play a tune onstage. The tiny Cabin stage was overflowing with what looked to be about 5o would-be grassers who put out a sparse but credible set of orchestra-sized grass.
IBMA’s Banjo Player of the Year and Grammy winner Alison Brown’s set was eccentric, to say the least. She started with what sounded like Bela Fleck Star Trek-worthy material, going boldly where no woman has gone before with interstellar banjo plinks. She came down to earth for a pop version of the ’75 Orleans hit “Dance With Me,” written by John Hall of Hall and Oates. She followed that one that with a tune that sounded suspiciously like Warren Zevon’s ’78 hit “Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner.” Nillson’s “Everybody’s Talking At Me” had many of the older crowd tapping their feet to a familiar tune, not quite able to place the source, but enjoying the treatment of a faint memory. The set closed with a smooth pop treatment of Cindi Lauper’s “Time After Time” that Brown said, tongue in cheek, that she wrote.
One of the pleasures of MerleFest is stumbling across acts you’ve never heard of and being captivated by their performance. The Bill Young Tribute With the Banknotes on the Cabin Stage presented one of the best sets of the day with seamless satisfyin’ bluegrass and Western swing. Bill and Evelyn Young were friends of Doc Watson’s, co-founders who donated their time and energy to help MerleFest get established in the early years. Each year, the festival puts on a tribute to Young, a banker and accomplished guitarist who passed in ’92. The Banknotes are local musicians who knew Young and jammed with him at his house in Wilkesboro and have been involved with the festival since its inception. The 8-piece group: R.G. Absher, Randy Gambill, Billy Gee, Tony Joines, Mike Palmer, Jeff Pardue, Donnie Story and Wes Tuttle turned in a set that mixed Bob Wills’ “Rose of San Antone” with a Western Swing flavored treatment of Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road,” closing with J. J. Cale’s ’72 tune “They Call Me the Breeze,” a big hit for Lynyrd Skynyrd in ’75 and still a staple of their shows but not one heard much in bluegrass circles.
The Steep Canyon Rangers grew up right in front of us, going from UNC students messing with ‘grass as hobby to headlining stages worldwide, touring with Steve Martin, winning a Grammy for 2013’s Best Bluegrass album Nobody Knows You. Woody Platt remembers “sleeping in the dirt down here (in the MerleFest campground) dreaming about standing up here one day.” They’ve obviously earned it. One of the sleekest bluegrass acts on the road today, 16 years since their inception, the Rangers are eligible for the rank of elder statesmen in the ‘grass community. It’s mesmerizing to watch them individually and as a group. Mandolinist Mike Guggino tears off mandolin licks like Jethro Burns, riffing at the speed of light. Classically trained violinist Nicky Sanders hops around like he’s being electrocuted. Drummer/percussionist Michael Ashworth drags in a taste of Peru with his Cajon Drum box, an instrument resembling an old speaker cabinet he has set up with a kick drum mallet to one side, playing the top and sides with a brush, stick, hand or help from Platt for some three handed, one footed rhythms.
Due to her soft delivery or just the soft core folk that made up her set, Shannon Whitworth’s set was overpowered by folks shuffling around and talking before settling in for the main event with headliner John Prine. Might have been better to give her some stage time with Ranger hubby Woody Platt or give her an afternoon slot on a smaller stage where the crowd could focus on her with no distraction from coming attractions alongside her.
From start to finish, Prine was magnificent. Rumors of his performance worthiness due to his neck and lung cancer surgeries proved worthless. He sounded like the Prine of old- a bit more weathered, but just broken in good. He had the crowd in the palm of his hand from the opener, a rollicking version of Merle Haggard’s “Ramblin Fever.” “Rest in peace, Merle,” Prine roared at the end, and the crowd roared back and kept roaring throughout his set.
His band was stellar. Prine has often derided his own guitar playing, but his guitarist Jason Wilbur adds a whole new dimension to his sound. Wilbur picks like Buck Owens Buckarros’ guitarist Don Rich on “Glory of True Love,’ adding a blistering Bakersfield feel to one of Prine’s classics.
Prine sounded strong, a bit hoarse when he talked, his voice breaking once in awhile, but not while he’s singing. He seemed to be enjoying himself immensely, telling long funny anecdotes between songs and singing each song like he had just written it and couldn’t wait to show it off. 05’s “Taking A Walk” shows Prine’s quieter introspective side, but he quickly dispelled that vibe. “This is is what you do with your body parts when you leave,” he said, introducing “Please Don’t Bury Me,” referring to the stanza that pleads with his disposer not to lay him in the cold cold ground, preferring to “have ’em cut me up
Aand pass me all around.”
“But my doctor said, ‘Don’t be leaving your body parts to anybody,‘”Prine chuckled as the audience erupted with guffaws at his gallows humor about the amount of radiation he has absorbed for his cancers. Wilbur Bakersfields it once again with a hint of Johnny Cash’s Tennessee Three tossed in. Prine rips through the tune gleefully. You can see the gleam in his eye from the back row when he hits the “Kiss my ass goodby” line.
But Prine’s not ready to go anywhere yet. He’s just warming up. “Grandpa Was a Carpenter” is a bit rougher sounding than some of the others, but Prine’s voice sound care worn, not worn out. Mandolinist Pat McLaughlin, who Prine introduces as “the guy who’s been beating the stuffing out of the mandolin all night,” tickles this one into frenetic bluegrass till Wilbur takes it to Owens-field and back.
The song’s over, but Prine’s not ready to let go of the memories just yet. He says he thought so much of his grandparents that ‘What I wanted to be when I grew up was an old person.” He waits a beat, then delivers the punch line. “Congratulations,” he says, as the audience erupts with laughter.
Hello In There” is even more poignant now that his face and voice have aged with the lyrics:
“ Old people just grow lonesome/
Waiting for someone to say, “Hello in there, hello”
So if you’re walking down the street sometime
And spot some hollow ancient eyes
Please don’t just pass ’em by and stare
As if you didn’t care, say, “Hello in there, hello.”
Prine says he never meant to write “Fish and Whistle,” but his producer called him up after he thought he had finished recording and told him he needed one more song for the project he was working on. Disgusted with the process and the way the album wasn’t sounding like he had envisioned it, Prine decided to write “the worst gawddam song anybody ever heard,” Prine promised himself for what became the opening cut on ’78’s Bruised Orange. Now it’s a fan favorite that anyone who’s ever had a lousy job can relate to:
“My very first job I said thank you and please
They made me scrub a parking lot down on my knees
Then I got fired for being scared of bees
And they only give me fifty cents an hour.”
Wilbur’s slide weeps gently on “Angel From Montgomery,” Prine’s vocal ragged, but gloriously so on the song he dedicates to Bonnie Raitt, sounding like the broken-down, broken-hearted protagonist who wonders “how the hell can a man go to work in the morning, come home in the evening and have nothing to say.”
Prine does have more to say, going more than a half hour over his set time. But there are no neighbors to complain, and nobody is mean or stupid enough to cut him short, so the band plays on, closing with Jim Lauderdale guesting with him on “Paradise,” the song he opened his last appearance with at MerleFest in 2005.
It’s a long walk down the mountain to the car, but along the way a miracle has occurred. The banjo-itis has disappeared. There’s no more ringing in the ears, washed clean away by Prine’s glorious, banjo-free set, a blessing on top of a blessing. But its only a temporary one. If the fest continues to deliver artists of Prine’s caliber, the pull will be too strong, and that ringing will require a hearing once again.