Merlefest – Wilkes Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
The spirit of the late Eddy Merle Watson has always pervaded the Wilkesboro, N.C., music festival named and held in his honor, and this spring’s 10th anniversary celebration was certainly no exception.
Appropriately enough, the shade of another too-soon-departed musician, Townes Van Zandt, seemed to share the spotlight with Watson this year, for his memory was invoked on numerous occasions throughout the weekend by several performers, including Guy Clark, Steve Earle, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, and Emmylou Harris.
Whether it was Clark’s solo rendition of “To Live is to Fly” or Harris’ crystalline version of “Pancho and Lefty”, or “White Freightliner Blues” done by just about everybody, it’s becoming clear that these and other musicians are refusing to let Van Zandt’s memory fade away. It’s as if they are determined to achieve for him the recognition in death that remained so elusive during his life.
Of course, Merle’s memory remains the emotional core of the festival, and the man responsible for keeping that spirit alive is his father, 74-year-old flatpicker Doc Watson. Seeming a bit frail these days, but with his craggy features remarkably unchanged, Watson opens and closes the weekend and appears just enough in-between to keep everyone happy.
In keeping with the eclectic nature of Watson’s music, MerleFest is not strictly a bluegrass festival, but more a mix of bluegrass, old time, gospel, folk, country, and acoustic traditions. This year’s lineup included the above-mentioned artists as well as Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tony Rice, Norman & Nancy Blake, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Ricky Skaggs, the Freight Hoppers, Arlo Guthrie, George Hamilton IV, Marty Stuart, Natalie MacMaster, the Rankin Family, Junior Brown, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Chesapeake, the Del McCoury Band and others.
Workshops, music and songwriting competitions, dance demonstrations, and craft exhibitions round out the days, which typically begin at 8 a.m. and wrap up around midnight. Indeed, sheer size can be a little bit daunting, especially for the first-time attendee. It’s grown from the backs of two flatbed trucks and 4,000 people to a four-day affair, encompassing 10 stages with over 100 artists playing for a crowd of more than 40,000. It’s well run, though, with an efficient shuttle system, lots of friendly, knowledgeable local volunteers, and convenient campgrounds (the closest area motels are usually booked well in advance).
Nevertheless, as far as the music is concerned, the first-timer is faced with Hobson’s choices from the moment he goes through the gates. For example, playing simultaneously on Friday afternoon were the Del McCoury Band, Darrell Scott & Roy Huskey Jr., and a honky-tonk dance featuring Doc Watson, Sam Bush, Mike Auldridge and Peter Rowan. Later, one had to choose between Gillian Welch & David Rawlings, Guy Clark, and Rowan & Rice. Fortunately, most of the artists play often enough during the weekend that an astute planner can catch everyone at least once, and often in a variety of settings.
Some of this year’s most popular acts included crowd faves Alison Krauss & Union Station, Canadian sensations the Rankin Family, and 24-year-old fiddle virtuoso Natalie MacMaster. Ricky Skaggs drew raves not only for his Saturday afternoon bluegrass set, but for his performance later that day with Rice, Fleck, Huskey and friends on the Hillside Stage.
One of the most poignant moments of the festival came when Welch & Rawlings performed “Long Black Veil” on the intimate Chris Austin Songwriting Stage. Just a few years before on that very spot, Welch had won the songwriting award for “Tear My Stillhouse Down”, though she noted wryly (and as a bit of encouragement for other aspiring songwriters) that she had also entered “Orphan Girl”, which met with indifference by the judges (but later was recorded by Emmylou Harris).
Other highlights included the Friday evening set by Rowan and Crucial Country, which consisted of Bush on mandolin, Douglas on dobro, Huskey on bass, and (purists shut your eyes here) a guy with a really big drum kit. Rowan’s playing and singing are in top form, and the set included an adventurous reggae-grass section, with “No Woman, No Cry” serving as the highlight.
Clark and Earle shared the Austin stage on Saturday, trading off newer songs (Earle’s “Come Back, Woody Guthrie” and Clark’s “Out in the Parking Lot”, co-written with Darrell Scott, among the keepers) and closing with a duet on “White Freightliner Blues” featuring Ronnie McCoury on mandolin.
Sunday brought with it a steady, audience-thinning drizzle, but the faithful were rewarded with some of the best music of the weekend. Earle, reunited with the Train A Comin’ band of Blake on guitar, Rowan on mandolin and Huskey on bass, played a stunning hour-plus set of old and new material. Opening with “Tom Ames’ Prayer” and including most of the Train album, Earle also included a new one, “You Know the Rest”, alongside classics such as “Copperhead Road” and “The Devil’s Right Hand”, which he described as one of his first “juvenile delinquents from the 19th century” songs.
Earle brought out Emmylou Harris to “dilute the ugly” and lend harmony on “Rivers of Babylon” and “I’m Nothing Without You”. Harris returned the favor during her set, bringing Earle out for a truly soulful “Goodbye”. Harris, and her band performed many of the songs from her Wrecking Ball album, proving that, live at least, the material off the record could sound both muscular and ethereal at the same time. Harris also included some of her classic country rockers, such as “Wheels” and “Two More Bottles of Wine”, and guitarist Buddy Miller proved a worthy duet partner on “Love Hurts”.
Next, Marty Stuart and his band played the hardest country set of the festival, encoring with “Hillbilly Heaven”. Stuart stuck around for the 10th Anniversary All-Star Jam with Doc Watson, as did Harris, Rice, Bush and a few others, but by that time the crowd had dwindled down to a couple hundred hardy souls.
Not that it really mattered. The small crowd was in fact reminiscent of many at that first MerleFest a decade ago. The event may have grown far beyond the founders’ original expectations, but at heart, it is still a small-town, family-oriented festival. It’s also a world-class weekend of music that should continue to serve as a fitting memorial to Merle for years to come.