Merlefest – Wilkes County Community College (Wilkesboro, NC)
The twentieth iteration of Merlefest had a transitional feel. Sure, there were the constants: Doc Watson, as nimble, gnomic and spiritually linked to these Carolina hills as ever; the lovely site, its mountainside serenity perhaps disturbed only by Saturday’s swelling crowd; and the jams, invigorating and tedious in about equal measure.
A trend toward young musicians has been apparent in recent years. This year it seemed to reach full flower, as the number and quality of teenage and twentysomething artists grew yet again, to the benefit of even the veteran musicians who found better focus when teamed with these young traditionalists. Bands such as Crooked Still and the Lovell Sisters mixed it up with the masters and earned a lot of respect.
Climbing ticket prices (not a quandary exclusive to Merlefest) and a confusing system of tiered admissions called into question the “down home” nature of the event. But a shifting emphasis to the small stages and impromptu gigs at campgrounds offered less corporate alternatives.
Opening night, the Watson Stage (the festival’s largest venue) had to cope with a late cancellation (Marty Stuart) and conditions that ranged from soggy to soaked. As skies cleared, the music found traction and a band ready to heat things up plugged in. The night would belong to Cherryholmes. A genuine family band, these six players each carry a distinct musical voice, yet the group sound was as tight as any that graced the Watson Stage. B.J.’s fiery fiddle, Cia’s accomplished banjo and vocals, and mama Sandy Lee’s supple yodel ignited a cold, wet crowd.
After that first night, a pattern developed: Blues and religious music began to vie with bluegrass and country for primacy. “Gotta mix my blues with my gospel,” noted Ruthie Foster before her turn on the Austin Stage. With a Saturday-night-barroom sound on guitar, a housewrecking voice from Sunday church, and the personality of everybody’s favorite cousin, Foster delivered one of the fest’s most talked-about sets.
The Red Stick Ramblers were a band on a mission. Their music is described as Cajun swing, and these guys do full justice to both of those elements in a gumbo that insists you get up and dance. Each of their multiple sets was singularly rewarding; the Dance Tent show got even the most brittle bones to shaking.
Though they seemed to be everywhere during the weekend, the Carolina Chocolate Drops’ fifteen-minute set on the Cabin Stage Friday was an ideal introduction. The brief performance packed all the coiled energy of this string/jug band’s song and dance into one irresistible little package before a massive audience. From that point on, their shows were packed with listeners primed for old-time music with an original, youthful heart. Maybe their most satisfying set was with Bob Carlin and the Chocolate Drops’ mentor — Joe Thompson, at 88 perhaps the last of the great African-American string-band fiddlers. Visibly delighted after the show, Thompson was heard inviting one and all to his 89th birthday celebration next year.
Merlefest has always honored gospel music’s rich southern history. This year it offered a marvelous presentation of an even older southern choral tradition: sacred harp. It began with a screening of what may be the definitive documentary on the subject, Awake My Soul. Created by Matt and Erica Hinton, the film makes the case that this rough-hewn American choral style deserves acknowledgement alongside its formal European counterpart (which until recent times banished sacred harp to the margins).
The film opened a window on another world, which on closer inspection proved part of our own. Featured players spoke to the enduring power of the music in their lives, a message reinforced at film’s end when some of those very players walked onstage to join a 50-voice choir. For the next hour we listened as they erected the walls of this uniquely American tower of song.
The Watson Stage would have its special moments as well. Alison Kraus & Union Station’s tribute to Tony Rice was a sweeping showcase for the band and their honoree (done no favors by the late time slot and the chilly temperatures). Perennial favorites Sam Bush and Darrell Scott also had strong showings, with high-energy sets under better conditions.
But another Merlefest newcomer may have topped them all. It might have taken a long set each night to adequately cover Elvis Costello’s range; indeed, his next Carolina appearance will be with the North Carolina Symphony Orchestra.
Costello’s Merlefest show focused on his solo and twang sides. In prime vocal form, he began alone, playing songs strewn across his career, from “Radio Sweetheart” to “Country Darkness”, and not hesitating to take liberties with old favorites (including a reworked “Alison”).
Next he teamed with multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell for songs from King Of America and music he’d written for country icons George Jones and Johnny Cash — admitting that while he was growing up, those around him “thought country was the Troggs”.
As the evening wore on, his band grew to include Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale and Byron House. Everything led up to a sparkling take on the Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil” and an all-stops-out “Mystery Train” as the closer.
Sunday in the Carolina mountains could scarcely find more fitting celebrants than Doc Watson and Doyle Lawson. Doc was especially reflective and moving in his Creekside Stage show with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Their backing was impeccable, but the stage was clearly his.
Quicksilver may be in a transitional phase personnel-wise, but as long as Lawson and Jamie Dailey remain in place, few would challenge their eminence in bluegrass harmony. Their Watson Stage set featured songs from their fine new album More Behind The Picture Than The Wall, but the last song was a request made earlier by George Hamilton IV. If Costello’s “Mystery Train” was a dark challenge, Lawson’s “Blue Train” was a celebratory hallelujah, four-part harmonies soaring heavenward.
As the festival was winding down, blues musician Paul Geremia shared a story in the guitar workshop. As a young man in the 1960s, he’d been struggling with the intricacies of Charlie Patton’s “Stone Pony Blues”. Nothing seemed to click until he had a backstage encounter with blues giant Howlin’ Wolf.
Noticing the young man’s guitar, the legendary Wolf rumbled, “Let me show you something.” It was a fingering position he’d been taught early in his career…by Charlie Patton. Watching the guitarists in that workshop arrange their own fingers, with smiles of recognition at the resulting sound, you sensed anew how Merlefest’s legacy — the unbroken circle — continues in its timeless arc.