THROUGH THE LENS: MerleFest 2019: The Caravan Moves On
Brandi Carlile - MerleFest 2019 - Photo by Jim Gavenus
The dogs bark, but the caravan moves on. — Arab proverb
I have thinking a lot about tradition lately. And memory. What leads us to a certain point in time? What do we remember?
What of Bill Monroe? What is our collective memory of him, i.e., his music? A lot of folks think of him as the originator of “tradition.” Or, at least one tradition. During this year’s MerleFest press conference Junior Brown said that he had a problem, a big problem, with folks who veer away from the Monroe tradition.
My issue/question/thoughts about tradition came to me during a panel discussion at the Big Ears Festival last month in Knoxville. In my wrap-up column on Big Ears I likened tradition to a river. A river of shifting currents and varying widths and depths. It’s our collective consciousness, so to speak. Who’s to say that when a given person steps into a given point in that river that that’s when “tradition” began? If you think about it, it’s rather audacious.
All the unknown writers and players of English ballads, St. Hildegard of Bingen, Bach, Stephen Foster, Robert Johnson, The Carter Family, Clifton Chenier, Charlie Parker, and many, many others stepped into that river. Is there only one tradition? Is there even only one river?
I do not think anyone would argue against Del McCoury as the quintessential bluegrass artist, a direct link to Monroe. But his most popular song by far is one released in 1991 by an Englishman (Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”). Heresy? When country music legend Charlie McCoy played guitar on Dylan’s “Desolation Row,” did anyone cry heresy? Was Joni Mitchell’s use of the dulcimer on Blue heresy?
I first heard that term used in the early 1970s when many young people, some with long hair, invaded bluegrass and traditional music and began playing it their way. Some of the most notable ones played MerleFest this year, as well as many years before: Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, Peter Rowan, and Jerry Douglas.
That term, or at least some version of that thought, recently has been thrown around again with the latest generation of young gifted artists, which could be viewed as predominantly female. Some are of color. And some are gay.
What are some people so afraid of? The river of life and music is long, wide and deep enough for all of us. Certainly it has room for many of the young artists who stood out at MerleFest this year: Molly Tuttle, Mile Twelve, Maybe April, Tyler Childers, The Brother Brothers, and The Milk Carton Kids.
What do you think of your tradition now, my blue-eyed son?
Saturday night at the Watson Stage is the statement night of the fest, a high-profile look at where we are and where we are headed.
One of the fest’s glaring omissions over the years has been a lack of artists of color. Last year Rhiannon Giddens was featured on Saturday night’s main stage, this year Keb’ Mo’ was among the Saturday headliners. Appearing solo, he kept the audience in a trance with his mastery of the modern blues. Just moments before his set, during the festival press conference, he talked about the tragic irony of the blues art form being the product of 400 years of slavery. However, the moment of his set was blues of a different sort, highlighted with the lyrics that resonates with our times:
Standing on the brink of disaster
Enough is enough is enough
I know the answer: Put a woman in charge.
That statement continued with a headliner later the same night, a lesbian who has been open about her music and life as long as I can remember — certainly a woman of charge. I first saw Brandi Carlile in 2009 when she headlined Radio City Music Hall in New York, which is a long way from MerleFest. Well, maybe not anymore. Relatively early in her set she did what has to be the anthem of her generation, “The Joke.” Then followed it with “(Take Me Home) Country Roads.” You talk about a collective consciousness, that was it. She was later joined by The Avett Brothers, who had stomped and hollered their way though their first MerleFest appearance well over a decade ago.
It was only fitting that the transition between Carlile and Mo’ was Sam Bush, who continues to not only push boundaries, but to obliterate them. He played at least four sets that day, and wore a different T-shirt at each one. That night it featured a picture of Pablo Picasso with the quote: “The purpose of art is make the disturbed comfortable and disturb the comfortable.”
The dogs on the shoreline may bark, but the the river flows on.