April 27-30, 2016, Wilkesboro, NC
Words and Photos by Tyler Davis
Nestled in the foothills of the Blueridge Mountains, Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina plays host to Merlefest. The annual celebration of traditional folk music, bluegrass, newgrass, country, rock, blues and jazz. The namesake of Merle Watson, son of Doc Watson, famed flatpicker from Deep Gap, North Carolina, and the Festival continues on in their honor.
The traditions run strong and deep in this festival that Doc once called traditional plus. If you enjoy banjos echoing through the hills on a sunny afternoon in April, this event has about everything you could ask for. Festival organizers said Sunday that an estimated crowd of 74,500 made it out to the 4-day fest. That included nearly 8,000 elementary and middle schoolers that are admitted into the festival free on Friday. Numbers slightly down from 2015, possibly due to the threat of storm and rain late in the weekend. One longtime attendee told me, “It’s not Merlefest without a rainstorm!” This rang true as the rain moved in late Saturday night.
I camped for the duration at the Wilkesboro Fire Department Campground, AKA Sewerfest. It’s located next to the wastewater treatment plant. I was a little worried, but never smelled anything unpleasant. Sewerfest was simply wonderful. The folks from the fire department couldn’t have been more helpful and accommodating. Since the festival is held on college campus, and probably because Doc was a religious man, there is no booze allowed at the festival. None is sold inside the festival. Very different than what I’m used to. I actually turned out to like it that way. Everyone is there just for the shared love of music, not just to party. Sewerfest is a short 5-minute shuttle ride from campus. The partying, if any, is done at the campgrounds. So with a DD in place for the weekend, we proceeded to get into a little shine. Sewerfest is also known for its late-night pickin’ parties. The steel building that typically houses the fire trucks was empty and made for the perfect jam room for bluegrass musicians of all ages. These pickin’ sessions ran into the wee hours of the morning and only faded out at signs of empty coolers and mason jars.
Arriving on Thursday, I set up camp, made friends with my neighbors and headed into the festival. Donna the Buffalo kicked off an awesome set on the main stage to open the weekend. Dancing back and forth between reggae, bluegrass, Cajun, zydeco and an almost Grateful Dead sounding vibe. Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale joined the band for a few tunes! How cool to see them all up there! One highlight was their rendition of ‘Midnight Moonlight.’ A new artist (to me) was Allison Brown, obviously from the Bela Fleck school of banjo. She was awesome. Pair that with a great piano and you got yourself a great set. I was truly impressed.
Coming on the stage about dusk, the Steep Canyon Rangers played a rocking set to a laid back Thursday afternoon crowd. Living in Asheville, I’m lucky enough to catch their annual winter shows at the Orange Peel. It was great to see their stage presence so pronounced in the festival atmosphere. They brought the energy up and kept it up! They delivered some hits from recent albums like “Tell The One’s I Love” and “Stand and Deliver.”
At 9pm sharp, roots country legend John Prine hit the stage. As the sky darkened and the lights went up, the entire Watson stage area simmered down to a whisper. It became a private listening room to watch John Prine and his band lay down their heartfelt show for us all. It was incredible! What a stage presence this guy has! Like an old badass cowboy would, John Prine skipped the petty introductions and got down to business. His set was peppered with a Merle Haggard tune, many of his contemplative originals like ”Sam Stone” and “Hello In There.” The crowd was silent and captivated. It really stuck with us all. After John Prine’s set I rushed over to the dance tent, to catch the end of Love Canon. They were burning up the stage playing to a packed tent with their bluegrass take on 80’s tunes. This is white-hot bluegrass, mind you, just not the typical set list you’ll see. We were fortunate to see their last few songs. They closed with a lengthy version of Flatt & Scruggs “Doin’ My Time.” Back to the campsite for some fireside jams. A buddy of mine, Cam Williams, came to the festival with his mandolin in tow. Not that any campsites are exclusive, but this gave us an open invite to any campfire we heard pickin’. Whether it was bluegrass tunes, Grateful Dead, or Johnny Cash, somebody always wants to play.
Some great shows were on tap for Friday. Including Billy Strings, Jerry Douglas, Junior Sisk and Rambler’s Choice and Old Crow Medicine Show. Friday also saw the beginning of press conferences with artists. What a treat to get up close and personal with these musicians. Inside in time to catch Billy Strings’ set, a Michigan bred guitar picker who’s playing is uncanny in regards to his young age. His dad was on the cabin stage playing with him, and they played a few fine Doc Watson tunes. They really had the early day crowd all smiles.
Another band new to me, Scythian, had a real buzz going around about them at the festival. Every stage they played was packed. “Celtic with an edge,” as people said. Their high energy mashed up with Celtic old time style, with two fiddles had the crowds jumping and clapping throughout the set. This is where you found the younger kids. They loved it. Scythian was also the focus of the Friday press conference. Danylo Fedoryka is the rhythm guitarist for Scythian. When asked about how they got to Merlefest, he said, “This is our 8th year at Merlefest. Seven years ago, we came as fans. We brought our instruments. We played our hearts out for the folks waiting in line for the bus. They were forced to listen to us, a captive audience. The very next year, we were playing on a stage at Merlefest. It’s been a truly amazing journey.” His brother, Alex Fedoryka, fiddle player, said, “Merlefest is the one festival where I feel like I’m not at a festival. It feels like we’re in someone’s living room. We are incredibly grateful.”
It was great to hear these musicians share their stories and love for this festival and its great fans. Merlefest veteran Jerry Douglas probably had my favorite set of the day. His signature dobro flowed beautifully throughout the trees. With a saxophone on stage, the set was quite unique; including a song Douglas called a New Orleans funeral march.
There is so much music going on at Merlefest, at the end of the festival you recap the schedule and realize whom you missed. There’s always next year! Old Crow Medicine Show closed out the Watson stage Friday night. Their rockabilly tent revival show brought the crowd to their feet. A feel good time for all. Switching instruments during the set and keeping things fresh, these guys weren’t leaving anything on stage. Everyone knew they would close the set with Wagon Wheel. They did. We hit the dance tent to catch the late night show from Donna the Buffalo. Another fun bit of music from a well-known band in the Merlefest community.
Saturday looked to be another great day. On tap were Sam Bush Band, Dave Rawlings Machine, The Wood Brothers, John Oates, and something someone told me I must not miss, the album hour at the hillside stage. This day, I really let the free flowing festival atmosphere take over. Or maybe it was the moonshine. I tried not to stick to a routine so much. Tried not to check the schedule every 30 minutes. I floated back and forth between whichever stage was near, catching new bands I hadn’t heard of, letting the music take me there. This brought me to a set that was one of my favorites of the weekend. Lindsay Lou and the Flatbellys. Another Michigan outfit, these guys brought a crowd in and absolutely blew them away. A four-piece band with three guys and a beautiful lady front and center. Their harmonies were on point, but to counter, Lindsay Lou had so much depth with her voice. She could go deep and soulful, a down and dirty tone that pulled at your guts and made you really feel it. I was blown away just like the rest of the crowd. This is what festivals are all about. Finding something you didn’t know was out there and walking away stoked. I can’t wait to see these guys again!! That then brought me to the hillside stage for album hour. A slew of well-known musicians join together on stage to play an album in its entirety. This was surely not to be missed. I’m not a good judge of crowd numbers, but I’d say about 2000 people on the hill to watch this?
Enter Sam Bush, Jens Kruger, members of The Waybacks, Nicki Bluhm of the Ramblers, Lindsay Lou, who I just spoke of and Mr. John Oates. What a spectacular line up of talent. These fine musicians proceeded to no doubt pay tribute to fallen Eagles guitarist Glenn Frey. They played the Eagles’ Greatest Hits with supreme musicianship and creativity. Weaving in intros to songs like Yes’ “Roundabout.” Witchy Woman was a highlight. A friend I made at the campsite, Alex Norris, kindly invited me to join his family in their perfect spot on the hillside. We sat and enjoyed a little shine and listened to these wonderful songs played for us all. It was a great moment in an already fantastic weekend.
Sam Bush and John Oates were at the Saturday press conference. A great honor to be able to ask both of these men questions. Upon being asked what Merlefest meant to him, Sam Bush had this to say; “We want people to remember why this got started. We want to remember Doc. We all miss him greatly.” Sam went on to say he was lucky enough to be enjoying his 29th year at Merlefest. Quite an impressive feat. When asked about playing with Doc, Sam said, “He led by example any time I got to play with him.” Sam is known for his blistering mandolin solos. He said, “One time I was on stage with Doc and Doc said ‘Son, you don’t have to put all that in one song, you can save it for the next one.’ This got a big laugh from the media crowd.
John Oates had some great quotes as well. He said, “I love traditional American Music. It’s very professional and very loose at the same time.” He got to play with Doc and Merle in 1968 and it’s been a long journey back to Merlefest but he was so honored to be a part of it.
As the sun began to fade, the rain started to fall. Unfortunately John Oates’ set was right during the downpour, forcing much of the crowd under the food court tent. It did subside, right in time for Dave Rawlings Machine. With the crowd cleared out, we got right up front for an inspiring show from Dave and Gillian Welch. The duo is perfect for each other, both in life and music. Their styles compliment each other so well. Playing great songs like “Keep it Clean” and totally holding the crowds attention with “Body Snatchers.” I was loving it. Gillian told a cool story of a way to give her guitar a certain raspy deep tone. She said, “I take this here hamburger receipt and fold it up under my strings and it makes this sound.” She went on to say it was a trick she learned from Johnny Cash. Now that’s something you don’t hear everyday. This is why people come to Merlefest.
It was a such a great experience. I’ll definitely be returning. Merlefest is a place where friendships are made, and ultimately re-kindled again each year. Musicians jam, fans jam, everyone jams. It’s a place for families, friends and music lovers. People come back year after year for a reason. Good reason.