THROUGH THE LENS: A Look Ahead at MerleFest 2023, Celebrating Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday
Doc Watson - MerleFest 2009 - Photo by Jim Gavenus
This year’s MerleFest, kicking off this Thursday, is an extra special one. This year’s edition, the 35th, celebrates the 100th anniversary of the birth of Doc Watson, the founding father of the “traditional plus” festival that was started in part to honor his late son, Merle Watson. As there will be an outpouring of love and appreciation for both Doc the musician and Doc the man during the four-day festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, this year’s preview begins with the column’s own appreciation.
I venture to say that there is no name in roots music as highly revered than Doc Watson. Part of this, of course, is due to his immense talent, but perhaps even more telling is the appreciation for the person he was. By all accounts from those who knew him, he remained true to his roots. Lester Flatt would say that Doc never got above his raisin’. I’d add that Doc did not change with the times, the times changed for him.
Longtime MerleFest photographer and frequent ND contributor Jim Gavenus knew Doc. Here are just a couple of his thoughts:
“I cannot recall the year, but I distinctly remember the circumstances when I first met Doc. It was a hot April day when Richard Watson, Doc’s grandson, invited me backstage at MerleFest’s old Austin Stage to meet and sit with Doc. We all hit it off immediately and just like that Doc became part of my life. I sat with him every chance I had and never missed a Sunday morning Gospel Hour at MerleFest’s Creekside Stage.
“One time, in 2007 at B.B. King’s Blues Club in New York City, he spoke at length of his life, family, trains, and his early days playing guitar. We talked for hours as he also picked the entire time and then added, ‘I hope people remember me for the man I was, not just the guitar I played.’ I’m extremely fortunate to have known Doc Watson, the man.”
Sets Honoring Doc
Doc & Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase, Friday 12:15-2:00 p.m. at Austin Stage at Mayes Pit (Cohn Auditorium).
Songs of Doc Watson with Mitch Greenhill, Friday 3:30-4:15 p.m. at Traditional Stage.
Memories of the Watson Family Hosted by T. Michael Coleman, Saturday 11:00-11:45 a.m. at Creekside Stage.
MerleFest Veterans Jam, Saturday 12-12:45 p.m. at Watson Stage. Although not billed as a set specifically honoring Doc Watson, this set will no doubt be filled with songs and stories of Doc as all of the vets knew him well.
Docabilly Blues Blowout with Mitch Greenhill & Friends, Saturday 3:15-4 p.m. at Austin Stage at Mayes Pit (Cohn Auditorium).
Doc Watson’s 100th Birthday Jam Hosted by The Kruger Brothers, Saturday 5:45-6:45 p.m. at Watson Stage.
Gospel Songs of Doc Watson with Jeff Little Trio, Sunday 11:30 a.m.-12 p.m. at Creekside Stage.
Artists Not to Miss
Of the 95 artists scheduled to perform across 12 stages, the 16 artists highlighted below are, with a couple notable exceptions, ones that regular MerleFest-goers may not be that familiar with. Most are first-timers and most play at least one set that do not require reserved seats to be up close. As all but two are performing more than a single set, you should be able to catch nearly all of them. There is, however, some inevitable overlap on Friday.
You can learn more about each of these artists on MerleFest’s artist lineup page. While every effort has been made to correctly list the performers’ schedules, be sure to download the app as last-minute changes are always possible.
Little Feat: Kudos to MerleFest for booking the legendary West Coast roots rock band. As Tommy Emmanuel recently recorded with them and has the set immediately after, I expect some cross pollination. 7:15-8:15 p.m. at Watson Stage.
Joshua Ray Walker: This Texas singer-songwriter just may be the new king of honky-tonk music. 8:15-9 p.m. at Cabin Stage.
Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley: Ickes is a 15-time IBMA dobro winner and Hensley is a guitar prodigy who made his Grand Ole Opry debut at the age of 11 with Earl Scruggs and Marty Stuart. Together they are the best bluegrass duo in the land. 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at Watson Stage; 1:15-1:45 p.m. at Autograph Tent; 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Creekside Stage.
J2B2 (John Jorgenson Bluegrass Band): While every member is a legend, Herb Pedersen, who wrote the classic “Wait a Minute” made famous by The Seldom Scene, is the ringer. 11:30 a.m.-12:15 p.m. at Walker Center; 5-5:45 p.m. at Traditional Stage.
Todd Albright: Grounded in the pre-war era of the country blues, Albright is the most neglected talent in the genre. Friday 12:15-12:45 p.m. at Cabin Stage; Saturday 3:20-4:05 p.m. at Austin Stage at Mayes Pit (Cohn Auditorium); Sunday 11:30 a.m-12:30 p.m. at Americana Stage.
Alison Brown: Brown will most likely be debuting tunes from her exciting new album, On Banjo, that comes out next week and stretches her bluegrass roots into Brazilian choro music, classical string quartets, swing jazz, and bossa nova. Her sets are at the top of my list. 12:45-1:30 p.m. at Walker Center Stage; 2:45-3:30 p.m. at Hillside Stage; 4-4:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Miko Marks: See why this member of the Black Opry Revue was named one of CMT’s Next Women of Country. 12:45-1:30 p.m. at Watson Stage; 2:45-3:30 p.m. at Dance Stage; 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Watson Stage; 7-7:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Bee Taylor: This Texas born, Nashville-based artist puts an electric beat to the blues that’ll knock your socks off. 12:45-1:30 p.m. at Americana Stage; 2-2:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent; 8:15-9 p.m. at Cabin Stage.
Yasmin Williams: If you think you know everything there is to know about the guitar, think again. Williams’ acoustic finger style of playing is unique, yet also harkens back to the hills and hollows of Appalachia. 1:30-2:15 p.m. at Hillside Stage; 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Watson Stage; 7-7:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
John Paul White: This Grammy-winner (as part of The Civil Wars) mixes blues, soul, and country together better than anyone ever has. 4:30-5:15 p.m. at Americana Stage; 6:30-7:15 p.m. at Cabin Stage; 8-8:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Dom Flemons: With roots music and storytelling flowing through his veins, Flemons captivates an audience so thoroughly he could be the reincarnation of Pete Seeger. 4:45-5:30 p.m. at Cabin Stage; 6:15-7 p.m. at Traditional Stage.
The Black Opry Revue: The Revue is a rotating cast of Black artists, including Miko Marks and Yasmin Williams, who are reclaiming their rightful place in country, Americana, and folk music. 5:30-6:30 p.m. at Watson Stage; 7-7:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Tommy Prine: John Prine’s son is making his own mark in Americana music. 11-11:45 a.m. at Hillside Stage; 5:45-6:30 p.m. at Americana Stage; 7:30-8 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Lori McKenna: The two-time Grammy-winning songwriter is without peer when it comes to capturing characters so vividly that you’ll swear you know them. 12:15-1 p.m. at Hillside Stage; 2-2:30 p.m. at Autograph Tent; 8:45-9:30 p.m. at Cabin Stage.
I Draw Slow: This Dublin-based band sits squarely at the crossroads of Irish and Appalachian music. No doubt they’ll be debuting songs from their new, self-titled album due this fall. 1-1:45 p.m. at Americana Stage; 3-3:45 p.m. at Dance Stage.
Bella White: ND’s Spotlight artist for this month is one of the brightest young talents in roots music today. She’ll be performing songs from her stellar new album, Among Other Things. 1:50-2:35 p.m. at Cabin Stage; 3:30-4 p.m. at Autograph Tent.
Click on any photo below to view the gallery as a full-size slideshow.