Merlefest- Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
It was just before 2pm on Sunday afternoon that a seismic shift very nearly overtook Merlefest in its 17th year.
On the far corner of the festival grounds at Wilkes Community College in the shadow of the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Carolina, two younger-generation acts were closing their respective sets on stages just couple hundred yards from each other. Playing to a jam-packed crowd inside the Dance Tent, Texas band the Gourds finally gave into the fervent requests for their ultimate crowd-pleasing cover of Snoop Dogg’s “Gin & Juice” — on this day, lacing it with snippets of everything from “Sunshine On My Shoulders” to “Highway To Hell”.
Not much more than a stone’s throw away, at precisely the same time, young Chapel Hill group Roman Candle got to the end of their set on the Hillside Stage and decided NOT to pull out their own audience-response ringer — a cover of Outkast’s “Hey Ya”, which they had played the night before at the Merlefest-sponsored teen dance in the Walker Center.
Perhaps it’s a good thing they begged off; otherwise, the synchronicity of events might have caused Merlefest and its time-honored bluegrass traditionalist aura to disintegrate on the spot.
But seriously, folks — what was perhaps most notable about this year’s festival was the opening of some doors that had previously seemed closed. The simple fact that the Gourds, despite their engaging mix of roots musics and their Carolina connection via Sugar Hill Records, had never previously played Merlefest seemed slightly improbable; their appearance this year was a welcome sign of the festival’s broadening horizons.
Ditto for the inclusion of Roman Candle, almost certainly the first indie-rock band that has ever performed here. The connection in their case is that two of the group’s members grew up in Wilkes County, and used to traipse around these grounds soaking up the traditional sounds that have long been the backbone of this prestigious festival honoring Doc Watson’s late son Merle.
Those traditional sounds, and the presence of Doc himself, remain the heart of what Merlefest is all about, even as its musical borders have expanded. For every curveball this year’s lineup tossed — Russian bluegrassers Bering Strait, Texas hony-tonk dancehall faves the Derailers, Peter Rowan’s side-project reggae excursion (complete with horns) — there remained the guiding forces of Merlefest mainstays such as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas and Tim O’Brien.
Often, it’s the interplay between the traditional and the progressive that leads to Merlefest’s most memorable moments. Lauderdale’s oft-revisited (and once-recorded, on last year’s Wait ‘Til Spring album) collaboration with jam band Donna The Buffalo had much of its incubacy here in recent years, and their Sunday afternoon set proved why it had been a successful enough match to warrant an album project.
Lauderdale’s solid sense for structured songwriting helps to rein in DTB’s occasionally aimless wanderings, while the band’s excellent organic musicianship helps to open up Lauderdale’s sometimes claustrophobically country-centric tunes. Together, they make each other better, as was made clear on such winning numbers as “That’s Not The Way It Works” and “Half Way Down”.
Perhaps the most successful collaboration of the weekend was delivered by a couple that’s actually together almost all the time, except when it comes to performing. Husband-and-wife Bruce Robison and Kelly Willis have only infrequently combined their musical personas onstage; Willis usually tours under her own name, while Robison has primarily made his mark providing songs for others to turn into hits (most notably the Dixie Chicks with “Travelin’ Soldier” and Tim McGraw & Faith Hill with “Angry All The Time”, both country chart-toppers).
They decided to team up for Merlefest, and their sets on Friday at the Watson Stage and Saturday at the Hillside Stage suggested they should play together all the time. Backed by an ace ensemble of Austin pickers (included a couple on loan from fast-rising ‘grassers the Greencards, who played their own set at the festival as well), Robison and Willis combined their respective repertoires and presented the strongest sets of songwriting to be heard at this year’s Merlefest.
More than that, they exuded a natural charisma and effortless ease that neither of them quite seems able to project when they take the stage separately. Together, whether tackling staples from Robison’s songbook such as “Wrapped” and “My Brother And Me” or delivering chestnut covers such as the Kendalls’ “Heaven’s Just A Sin Away” (a particularly appropriate choice given that Jeannie Kendall also performed at the fest this year), they were golden. And when Robison smiled toward their young son Deral Otis at the side of the stage as they sang the chorus of “Not Forgotten You”, the ties that bind became clear.
A sort of yin-yang comparison to the Robison-Willis relationship was offered by the duo of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, longtime veterans of Merlefest (it was here in 1993 that Welch won the inaugural Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, an early steppingstone for her career). Whereas Willis and Robison have largely kept their performances separate, Welch and Rawlings have worked for a decade as an intrinsically intertwined partnership. It’s virtually impossible to imagine either of them onstage without the other playing alongside.
They played three sets at the festival, getting better each time. A somewhat uninspiring set at the Austin Stage on Friday afternoon was trumped by a more intriguing turn at the Creekside Stage around sundown on Saturday, spiked by covers of the traditional “Big Rock Candy Mountain” (with Rawlings singing lead) and Jimi Hendrix’s “Manic Depression”.
The clincher was Saturday night’s short set at the Cabin Stage, in front of about 25,000 people who were awaiting Vince Gill’s headlining set on the adjacent Watson Stage. Even those eager for Gill’s more pop-friendly brand of country must have been spellbound by Welch and Rawlings’ captivating performance, which was capped by a new song (putatively titled “Throw Me A Rope”) that’s unlike anything the duo has ever done before. Breaking from their penchant for contrapuntal harmony vocals, they sing the melody of the verses in eerie unison, creating a dramatic double-track tension that cracks heartbreakingly when they return to harmonic divergence in the chorus.
Gill’s subsequent set on the main stage was plenty congenial but less affecting, though he had his bright moments — most notably when he brought out Rosanne Cash for a poignant take on “Ring Of Fire”, the classic tune her late stepmother June co-wrote for her late father Johnny.
Cash’s own set the following afternoon proved to be an ideal Sunday closing touch for the festival. She bounced between songs from her recent record 44 Stories, her big hits such as “Seven Year Ache”, and a surprising cover of Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Who’ll Stop The Rain” (to acknowledge a sudden downpour that had drenched the crowd).
She also paid further tribute to her father with “Tennessee Flat-Top Box” plus two other indelible Johnny numbers in which she wisely played to Merlefest’s collaborative spirit. First she brought out Jim Lauderdale to sing along on “Big River”; then came perhaps the most touching moment of the weekend, as the festival’s father figure joined her for an emotional rendition of “I Still Miss Someone”. (Rosanne confessed it was Doc who had suggested they do that one together.)
As much as Rosanne still misses Johnny less than a year after his passing, Doc still misses Merle nearly twenty years later. That much he makes clear every day during Merlefest, when he and his longtime friend Bill Mathis take to the Watson Stage briefly to pay tribute to Merle with a song Mathis wrote in remembrance of Doc’s son.
It’s a simple little tune, based partly on the chorus of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken”, but it stays with you throughout the weekend as you walk from stage to stage on the Wilkes Community College campus. It reminds you why all these people started coming here in the first place — and for that, we all owe Merle a debt of gratitude.