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MerleFest 2005
by Bill Frater


MerleFest, named to honor Doc Watson's late son, Merle, is held in late April in the Blue Ridge Mountains on the campus of Wilkesboro College in North Carolina. It's a full days travel from California and I was pretty bushed by the time I got to the festival site Thursday night. But it was my first time to this well-respected festival so I wanted to check out the site and catch the great Loretta Lynn. Unfortunately, Loretta was having vocal challenges by her third song. But she is a legend and her down-home charm carried her through her short 35-minute set. Meanwhile, I'm feeling a little overwhelmed by the crowd and the size of the main stage's seating area. MerleFest draws over 80 thousand people over the 4-day weekend and my first thought was "Where do they put everybody?". The only festival that I've been of comparable size is JazzFest in New Orleans, which is on a larger site. But somehow, once you get your bearings and find all the stages, MerleFest really doesn't seem that big.

After 18 years, the organizers and volunteers really know what they're doing and should be commended for how they handle the large crowds. Like most large festivals, there are multiple stages, about six outdoor and three indoor, the main one being the Watson stage with reserved seating up front and a second, smaller Cabin stage for “tweener” sets. Most acts do 3 or 4 sets on the different stages, throughout the 4 day festival For instance, Canada's The Duhks, (below left), a great new “buzz” band, did 3 sets Friday and another on Sunday. Some artists, like Jim Lauderdale and Doc Watson, (pictured above), just pop up everywhere, always available for a smile or a song.

One unique factor about MerleFest is that alcohol is not sold here, although I did hear rumors of some flasks of moonshine floating around. This is a very family-friendly festival. I didn't hear a single “cuss” word from the stage either. There was a whole kids area including a “Little Pickers” stage. Families were everywhere, even backstage. In fact, I think most of Wilkes County had backstage wristbands. The locals were as nice as could be and they really appreciate and love this music. I found that there was much more awareness of the artists than you'd get from normal Californian. (Normal Californian, just what does that mean?) The point is, most of this music has roots in this region and these "normal" people know and love it.

Friday is the first full day of MerleFest and the morning rain and promise of more to come did not induce me to leave my hotel in Boone, a half hour drive away. The drive is nice and it's even called the Doc and Merle Watson Highway, which goes right through Deep Gap, where Doc stiil lives. You park on a big field and they have a dozen Boy Scout buses that shuttle people back and forth from the festival site. The morning was sprinkling so I sat in on a guitar workshop featuring two hot pickers, Bryan Sutton and James Nash (The Waybacks). There are quite a few workshops around MerleFest but I didn't see a lot of jamming. This is probably due to the fact that there is no on-site camping but I did hear that the nearby RV lot has some late night pickin' going on.

I hooked up with the members of Polecat Creek, whose CD Leaving Eden was one of my favorites from last year. I was looking forward to seeing them live for the first time. They played at the Hillside Stage in the morning but it was raining, then rather large and sterile Walker Center Theatre. Later that evening they found that "just right" setting of the Traditional Stage. Their glorious harmonies and original old-timey folk music was perfect for the intimate tent. And that's how it was, if you liked someone, you could see them 3 or 4 times. Friday I also caught bits and pieces of Old School Freight Train, Crooked Jades, Robin & Linda Williams, Roman Candle (with Thad Cockrell) and The Kruger Brothers.

Saturday, usually the biggest attendance day at MerleFest, was an amazing (and long) day. The morning highlights included King Wilkie, the best new (and young) bluegrass band to come around in years. They have great vocals, they're good pickers without showing off too much, and their original songs are excellent. Donna The Buffalo, a fun North Carolina band that has been mixing with the jam band crowd, followed them on the Hillside Stage. I then went down to the Americana Stage to catch the Avett Brothers, (photo right), a band whose been getting good press for their live shows. They were… well, hard to describe, I wasn't sure whether they were really that vulnerable and somewhat inept or if it was part of their act. I suspect that they were genuine, looking like gas station pump jockeys with clean shirts on. Some nice tender ballads with good harmonies broke up their funny antics. They were hilarious without meaning to be, I think…

Saturday also featured the Blue Grass Boys Reunion featuring Peter Rowan, Earl Scruggs, Del McCoury, Bobby Hicks, Richard Greene and others. Pretty special stuff but I regretfully missed most of the set. You just have to make your choices and let some things go, allowing for time to chat with friends, look at the crafts booths and the huge instrument tent near the main stage. Food-wise, I loved how they support local Wilkes County civic groups, the Baptist Church, the high school cheerleaders and al, They were all selling a pretty good variety of decent festival food.

There were quite a few unexpected artists who were there just because they loved the festival. Notables were members of The Mammals who combined with The Duhks for a great unannounced set that was just listed as TBA on the schedule. Chris Thile and Sarah Watkins from Nickel Creek joined Tim & Mollie O'Brien (photo left), for an amazing acapella “Shut The Door and Keep Out The Devil”, followed by a few tunes. Thile was everywhere all weekend. He was backstage at the Midnight Jam helping 3 young mandolin pickers. And Steve Earle was never far from his new sweetie Allison Moorer , joining her for a duet on “Coming Around” on her Sunday morning show. Moorer sounded excellent just playing solo, letting her magnificent voice and songs carry her set.

Perhaps the best band who was new to me was The Wilders (pictured right with Dirk Powell). This 4-piece band from Kansas City play a frantic combination of old-timey string band and vintage honky tonk music with a lot of joyful style and high energy. Crowded around one mic, they were as much fun to watch as to hear. Featuring the amazingly frantic fiddle of Betse Ellis and the strong and funny lead vocals of Ike Sheldon. Their playing was like an old Buick sliding around a sharp mountain on two wheels. These guys must be seen to be believed.

The Austin Stage, set in front of a steep hillside for the audience was the place to be Sunday morning, with Merritt followed by impressive newcomer Hayes Carll (left) and then Rodney Crowell. Carll has a great stage presence, a sarcastic sense of humor and brilliant songs. He reminded me of Todd Snider's self-effacing manner. Rodney was relaxed playing acoustic and told stories about Johnny Cash and played a few songs from The Outsiders, his next CD, due in August. The festival closed Sunday evening with Alison Krauss and band, doing their usual light and tightly scripted set, leaving very little room for the improvisional style which bluegrass is based on. Quite the opposite of The Wilders. Still, they do what they do very well, Alison was in fine voice and they drew the largest Sunday crowd ever to MerleFest.

It was still barely light out when it was all over. I felt a certain sadness that I had to head back home. I realized I had only scratched the surface of the MerleFest experience. Many of the workshops and acts will just have to wait 'til next year. All in all, I would highly recommend MerleFest to anyone who's into acoustic-based Americana music, especially if you lean towards bluegrass and singer/songwriters. If you live anywhere within a couple of hours of Wilksboro then this would be a mandatory pilgrimage. Take the kids and be flexible and musically open-minded. Don't be deterred of the size of the festival, it's not a big deal. As far as lodging goes, unless you're willing to camp or have an RV, you'll probably end up driving a ways. It's worth the trip, the folks are great and you can really get close to many of the artists. I'll see ya there next year!


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