THROUGH THE LENS: MerleFest Memories and Magic
Jim Lauderdale at MerleFest - Photo by Rick Davidson
For many roots music fans, MerleFest kicks off the festival season. With few hotel rooms available in the immediate area, fans come to Wilkesboro each late April if not with campers in tow then tents and camping gear in the backseat for four marvelous spring days in the rolling mountains of western North Carolina. Many people view this as a pilgrimage to the birth region of the inimitable Doc Watson, whose music encompassed all of the branches of roots music.
However, Doc’s music took on extra dimensions as well. Perhaps Guy Clark said it best in “Dublin Blues,” “I have seen the David, the Mona Lisa too/And I have heard Doc Watson play ‘Columbus Stockade Blues.’” Doc took what we call front porch music and made it high art.
While it was the correct thing to do, the news that this year’s MerleFest was canceled due to coronavirus concerns was met with a great sense of disappointment and even loss. As with previous years, 2020 offered a diverse lineup, with good doses of young bands and Americana artists. I was especially looking forward to seeing first-timers Kelsey Waldon, Sierra Ferrell, Che Apalache, Amythyst Kiah, Charley Crockett, Robbie Fulks, and Gangstagrass, among others.
The Show Goes On — Virtually, That Is
However, MerleFest is not standing still. As all sets on the Watson and Cabin stages are recorded on video, the festival is taking the unprecedented step of streaming one of its previous editions, the 25th. Held in 2012, it was also Doc’s last. All the information you need on how to stream the fest and the artists who will appear can be found here. It will be streamed Thursday through Sunday, the same dates this year’s festival was slated to take place.
This week the column is a hybrid of sorts. First, it will feature photos of artists that would have appeared at this year’s festival, along with photos taken at 2012’s MerleFest. Many of the 2012 photos have never been published anywhere before. You will also notice that many of those who performed in 2012 were slated to appear this year, including Alison Krauss, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Roy Book Binder, Scythian, and The Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour.
Second, I am turning the remainder of the written portion to Kelly Shipe, who shares what MerleFest has meant to her. Unbeknownst to me at the time, she was in one of my MerleFest audience photos of a couple years back that was featured in this column.
The View from Kelly Shipe
A few years back, my friend Jess invited me to to MerleFest. “Come on, Kel!” she implored. “MerleFest is magic.”
It was spring. There would be camping and live music. I hadn’t yet bought into the magic part, but what the hey. “Alright, I’ll go.” I pulled out my overalls, braided my hair, packed my gear, and off we drove east through the Smoky Mountains that border Tennessee and North Carolina. The beauty of the late April road surrounded us.
That first day in Wilkesboro is etched in my memory like the moment you first lock eyes with a true love. At the barn-esque Watson Stage, the raucous energy of Old Crow Medicine Show lifted me out of my newly resoled Dingos. On to the Dance Tent, where I square danced, squealed, and tipped my trucker-hat to a kind Angel who took me through the quadrille. And my night shored up with the discovery of Scythian, the Celtic folk-rock band that had me jumpin’ to “Galway Girl” and “Hey Mama Ya.” What was this place?!
The next day, perched on the grassy slope, I watched as the Waybacks took the Hillside stage with T Sisters and Celia Woodsmith and struck the first chords of “Carry On” from Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s masterpiece Déjà Vu. Chills. If I needed a sign that this music festival was special, a unique fellowship of roots musicians and those who wholeheartedly love the art they create, I got it at my inaugural Album Hour. In that moment MerleFest became a non-negotiable part of my life.
In the following years, I’d make my April pilgrimage to Wilkesboro. I remember one year The Wood Brothers were accompanied by a spring shower. If I close my eyes, I can hear “Luckiest Man” echo through the holler, rain pattering on my hat. Thinking back on Jeffrey Foucault and The Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Americana Stage or Jim Avett with his boys at the intimate Creekside Stage, my heart soars.
Last year was Brandi Carlile at the Watson. Her lush vocals pierced the mountain air … “A love song is playing, on the radio … ” Never in my life have I had such an undeniable, palpable sense of collective spirit as I did during her set that starry evening. MerleFest Magic indeed.
I’ll miss Billy Stings this year along with the old-time perfection of Bill and the Belles and the country-western sounds of South Texas cowboy Charlie Crockett plus, so many more. The magic won’t happen this season, though I do know its breeze will blow over me with a scent of sweet honeysuckle when MerleFest returns April 29, 2021.
Now, the gallery of photos: Those we would have seen this week, and those from 2012. The ones from 2012 are labeled as such.