Once again, the small mountain town of Wilkesboro, N.C., was transformed into the monster music event Merlefest, which drew more than 70,000 fans for four days of the best Americana music in the country. With a lineup that read like a Who’s Who of country, bluegrass and old-timey music, fest-goers were treated to performances by the likes of Dolly Parton, Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent, Nickel Creek, Jim Lauderdale, Tim O’Brien, Thad Cockrell and countless other seasoned acts and newcomers–all played out last weekend against the backdrop of the Blue Ridge Mountains.
It was a long way from the festival’s humble beginnings in 1987, when the first Merlefest–a memorial to the life and music of Merle Watson–began as a modest event where acts performed on a couple of rented flatbed trailers parked on the Wilkesboro Community College campus. The son of world-renowned bluegrass musician Doc Watson, Merle–recognized as a fine bluegrass picker in his own right–was killed in 1985, when his tractor overturned on a mountain slope near his home in Caldwell County. While that first fest drew 4,000 people, Merlefest, now in its 14th year, has become the premier Americana music celebration in world.
This past weekend, concertgoers were treated to 13 stages showcasing uniquely American music: bluegrass, alt-country, rockabilly, traditional country, roots rock, gospel, blues, Western swing, acoustic funk, folk, Zydeco and anything else you can think of. Mountain old-timers, alt-country hipsters, aging hippies and young kids rubbed elbows and enjoyed the music, brought together by a resonating sense of community and tradition. The line that separated the “stars” from the fans was thin; performers mingled with the crowd, and audience members occasionally took center stage during the ubiquitous jams and dance sessions.
Artists, chefs, comedians, jesters and craftspeople were on hand to sell their wares, hold workshops or perform. Granola garb, wooden zebras and African drums were sold alongside handmade hammer dulcimers and bluegrass banjos. The Merlefest mascot, in a giant raccoon outfit, roamed the streets entertaining children (and possibly freaking them out). Jim Alberti held court over throngs of children with his traditional flea circus, which has been in his family for more than 120 years.
The “crowd mentality” was entirely absent as people tossed Frisbees, sipped iced tea and kicked back in the grass, absorbing some spring sunshine and real fine music. Beyond the spectacle of great entertainers like Dolly Parton, Doc Watson and Rhonda Vincent, moments of virtuoso performance were to be found everywhere, like 11-year-old mandolin player Kieran Daly, who cranked out some of the hottest bluegrass licks at the festival. Daly, who started playing at age 6, performed for a crowd of cheering kids under the Little Pickers tent.
“I like to play the mandolin because it’s not depressing,” said Daly. “It’s fun and there’s a wide variety to play, from bluegrass to jazz.” Nevertheless, when asked about some of his musical influences, the young skateboarder didn’t hesitate to plug Black Flag and Agent Orange, right alongside Chris Thile (Nickel Creek) and John Hartford.
Other surprises included an impromptu performance by Ira Bernstein, the legendary Asheville-based tap and traditional dancer. Bernstein joined bluegrass virtuoso Tim O’Brien on the Austin Stage and ripped into a fast-paced, freestyle, flatfooting jig. That same night, Raleigh-based alt-country musician Tift Merritt performed for what she calls her “posse” (a group of Triangle fans and friends) and other attendees at the Student Center Lounge. Though she was slated for only one song, the wildly enthusiastic audience kept her on stage for an additional five. A standing ovation brought Merritt back onstage, and she debuted “Ready to Go,” a poignant tune inspired by her recent move to Raleigh from a small farm house outside Pittsboro.
Local country singer-songwriter Thad Cockrell, who has been collaborating with Merritt, as well as former Whiskeytown member Caitlin Cary, made the finals in the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, competing against more than 200 entrants in the country division. Cockrell won second place for his polished performance of “Pretending,” a dreamy tune of nostalgia and lost love off his CD, Thad Cockrell and the Starlite Country Band.
Far from the Chris Austin Stage, thousands of fans basked in the sun or danced to the rollicking sounds of Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder. For Skaggs, this Kentucky Thunder phase of his career marks a new direction through old territory. Having abandoned the big hair and pop sound of his “Nashvegas” days, Skaggs has returned to his roots, playing strictly bluegrass and bluegrass-influenced tunes. His Merlefest set consisted of a batch of upbeat, old-time flavored originals along with a good dose of cranked-up Stanley Brothers and Flatt and Scruggs classics.
Nickel Creek, currently recording on Durham’s Sugar Hill label, played to a maximum-capacity audience Friday night on the Watson Stage. Brought on by Super Bowl-style cheers, the teen trio received a standing ovation from the crowd.
“I’m so stoked to be here,” said Chris Thile, the band’s out-of-sight mandolin player, sending the horde of 14-year-old girls into the kind of screaming frenzy usually accorded N’Sync’s Justin Timberlake.
Without a doubt, the highlight of the weekend was Ms. Dolly Parton, who performed for more than an hour Saturday night on the Watson Stage, her natural charm and down-home glamour wowing the crowd. She played cuts from both of her new albums, The Grass is Blue and Little Sparrow (both on Sugar Hill Records), but it was her storytelling and humor that won the audience over. Before singing “Coat of Many Colors,” Parton told the story of how her Mama made that coat, and how proud she was to wear it, only to be laughed at by her schoolmates. Even though fans have heard that story for years, only the hardest hearts weren’t broken–such is the power of Parton. While the Nashville legend can come off like the Mother of Us All, she can also joke like one of the boys, inserting sexual innuendos at every turn and keeping the audience laughing with quips like, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap,” or, “It’s surprising how healing a lot of money can be.” Backed by Chris Thile, who was introduced by Parton as a “spastic, spike-hair sparrow,” and Sam Bush on mandolins, Parton and Doc Watson closed out the evening with “Last Thing on My Mind.”
Parton said, “You ready, Doc?”
To which he replied, “Yeah. OK, fellas, get me on the down beat.”
While Merlefest is ostensibly a tribute to Merle (and Doc) Watson, this past weekend proved that it is also a dedication to living American history. Americana music, with all its subgenres, is a cultural expression unique to our national experience. The songs are testimonies of triumph and defeat, love, loss and struggle. Merlefest offered the opportunity for people from all segments of society to come together to celebrate their common history, relax, get some sun, and hear a lot of great music right here in North Carolina–the Americana music mecca.
For more information, visit www.mer lefest.org