Merlefest – Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
To the right, to the left, to the front, to the back — everywhere you looked in the giant field at the foot of the Watson Stage, there were endless throngs of people, eagerly awaiting the Merlefest debut of Dolly Parton. The festival drew its biggest crowd ever this year, with 77,000 attendees over a sunny Thursday-Sunday stretch, and it almost felt like that many were there just for Parton’s Saturday night performance, clearly the main attraction of the weekend.
Yet while Dolly’s marquee value packed ’em in, and her performance met all expectations just fine, folks don’t really come to Merlefest just for one big gig. It’s clearly the breadth of the experience that counts — the opportunity to see so many talented performers not just on the main stage playing to the masses, but amidst the maze of smaller settings scattered throughout the festival grounds.
Take Saturday afternoon, for example. Between noon and 5 p.m., my own personal festival soundtrack shifted from the sweet singing of Rhonda Vincent and her crackerjack backing band, the Rage, at the Hillside Stage; a lazy lunch lounging on the grass in front of the cozy Cabin Stage while octogenarian country-blues picker Etta Baker fetched magic from her guitar; then back to the Hillside Stage for lightning-quick bluegrass from Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder; over to the Traditional Tent for a spell away from the sun and a lesson in gospel singing from the Branchettes; and finally stumbling upon the Americana stage just as Louisiana kid sensations Feufollet (“the zydeco Menudo”, my companion joked) thrilled an audience and received a helping hand from “elder statesman” mandolinist Chris Thile of Nickel Creek, who recently turned the big two-oh.
Thile and his band (featuring 24-year-old guitarist Sean Watkins and Sean’s teenage sister Sara on fiddle) were among the major stories of the festival, having become Sugar Hill Records’ best-selling act in recent months. Though they’ve been Merlefest favorites in the past, Friday night marked their first turn on the main stage, and by Saturday they’d sold through all their stuff at the merch booth. Thile also played with Parton’s band on Saturday night, and his unmistakable presence — a “spastic spiky-haired sparrow,” Dolly playfully chided — seemed ubiquitous throughout the weekend. (Not that they seem to have grown the least bit above their raising amid all this attention; writing about Merlefest in the band’s website journal, Sara Watkins dutifully reported, “We hung out a bit and got to see some more performances and I caught a skink who was just sunbathing next to where I sat.”)
For all the fun of wandering from stage to stage and catching snippets of everything under the sun, there’s also the occasional luxury of getting off your feet and parking yourself in one place for awhile to catch a full set of someone you’re really dying to see. For me, that was Saturday’s twilight set at the Austin Stage by Chris Hillman and Herb Pedersen, whose thoroughly enjoyable 1996 album Bakersfield Bound was among the past decade’s true hidden gems.
Though Hillman tends to be the focal point of their duo because of his heyday with the Byrds and the Burritos, Pedersen’s credits as a banjo player and harmony singer are no less substantial in terms of helping shape the sound of country-rock. As Hillman put it quite succinctly in complimenting his comrade’s accompaniment on this evening, “He is the consummate tenor singer.”
What’s remarkable about both Hillman and Pedersen is that, while they’ve both logged serious time at the edge of the spotlight in hitmaking rock and pop realms (and country, too, lest their days in the Desert Rose Band be forgotten), they also have the chops and the experience to slide easily into a festival known primarily for bluegrass. And yet those other leanings also make them a welcome exception within an environment that, if it has any weak point, sometimes seems prone to becoming a pickers’ fest at the expense of memorable material. Hillman and Pederson refreshingly placed songwriting front-and-center, from the former’s Gram Parsons co-write “Wheels”, to the latter’s Seldom Scene signature tune “Wait A Minute”, to the Dylan-penned Byrds breakthrough “Mr. Tambourine Man”.
It was intriguing, in fact, to hear how often Bob Dylan’s presence surfaced on this weekend — especially since he happened to be playing across the state in Charlotte even as Merlefest was hitting its peak. Hillman and Pedersen’s encore choice was “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”; Nickel Creek’s closing jam on Friday night featured a snippet of “Subterranean Homesick Blues”; Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas delivered a divine “Girl From The North Country” from the Cabin Stage on Friday; and Tim O’Brien pulled out one of the more obscure covers from his Red On Blonde album, “Man Gave Names To All The Animals”, on Saturday night.
In the years to come, though, the most treasured memories of my first Merlefest likely will revolve around rising Raleigh songstress Tift Merritt, who won the country portion of the festival’s songwriting contest in 2000 and returned this year to perform on a handful of stages throughout the weekend. Merritt more than held her own in a songwriters’ circle gig on Saturday with accomplished Nashville tunesmiths Darrell Scott, Beth Nielsen Chapman and Stacey Earle; and she made an early (10:30 a.m.) arrival on Sunday worthwhile with a half-hour performance on the Plaza Stage.
Best of all, though, was a brief farewell at the very end of Friday’s proceedings, with the main stage entertainment wrapped up and a few dozen hangers-on gathering at the Lounge Stage for one final shot of music. Three time-tested originals — the hauntingly pensive “Distant Way Of Loving”, the vivaciously rockin’ “Kind I Like”, and the strikingly soulful “Somebody” — testified to Merritt’s considerable stylistic range.
But two brand-new numbers that bookended the five-song set left the most indelible mark. The first, “Bramble Rose”, aches with classic country-folk remorse and regret, its beautiful melody reflecting the “real good woman nobody knows” who resides, resigned, in the soul of the song. The last, perhaps titled “Not Quite Ready To Go”, revisits a peaceful time “when we lived in the country” that’s becoming a faded memory as life begins to bloom in brilliant new directions — and yet something keeps drawing you back to that little piece of heaven in the heart of Carolina.
It’s a feeling that definitely hits home at Merlefest.