Leaving MerleFest 2015, I couldn’t escape the feeling that I’d just attended a big ol’ reunion, with the family made up of the late Doc Watson and his relatives, both living (including his daughter Nancy and his brother David, who recently turned 90) and gone (Doc’s son Merle, for whom the festival is named, his wife Rosa Lee); Doc’s musical contemporaries, again, many of them passed on like Earl Scruggs, Hazel Dickens, Tut Taylor; the musicians younger than Doc who revered, visited, and were encouraged by him – Tim O’Brien, the Kruger Brothers, Sam Bush, David Holt, T. Michael Coleman, Pete Wernick, and many others; and the big extended family in front of the stage. Basically, anyone who wants to show up, respect the music, and be open to the many styles and shapes that the music takes, and make a little sound themselves. This family keeps coming back year after year.
At a MerleFest press conference, Tim O’Brien talked about going to Doc’s house late in Doc’s life. Doc asked if Tim thought he could keep coming back and keep MerleFest going after Doc died. He would keep coming back anyway, Tim said, but hearing that was a moment for him. He and the others who are among the biggest draws at the festival seem to feel that responsibility to keep it going and to keep the openness of MerleFest alive. Nick Forster said that Hot Rize made MerleFest 1990 their last show (their “faux farewell, he called it) because of Doc and how helpful he was to them early in the band’s career. It wasn’t the last time I’d hear folks talk about MerleFest as something akin to sacred ground.
Tim O’Brien and Hot Rize performed on the Watson Stage on Thursday night, their first MerleFest appearance since 1990. And they brought along the Western swing band from Wyoming, Montana, Red Knuckles and the Trailblazers.
Béla Fleck said that one of the proudest moments of his life was when Doc asked him to play banjo on his bluegrass album (1984’s Riding the Midnight Train, along with Sam Bush, Mark O’Connor, and Merle Watson), and that it showed Doc’s openness to the different approaches people take with traditional music. Béla had joined Sam Bush in New Grass Revival a few years before, and they were pushing the boundaries of bluegrass music. This year, Béla was performing with his wife – banjoist, singer, songwriter Abigail Washburn – and they had their young baby in tow. The circle continues at MerleFest.
And yet, newcomers are welcome and an integral part of the spirit of MerleFest. Trampled by Turtles closed the first night on the Doc and Merle Watson Stage with anything but a traditional set. Frantic tempos, atonal fiddle solos, and rock-concert lighting all made it clear that this is a band that is moving the music in new directions. When Trampled fiddle player Ryan Young and mandolin player Erik Berry talked about their influences, they mentioned Doc Watson and bluegrass in the same breath as Ozzy Osbourne and hip-hop. The crowd loved their set, and I suspect Doc, who was known to pick up a Les Paul before he became king of the flatpickers, would have loved it, too. There’s room in this tent.
Scythian brought their “immigrant road show” to MerleFest for a set of high-energy, Irish-influenced songs and traditional tunes on fiddles, accordion, guitar, drums, and electric bass. Highlights of the set included a blazingly fast take on the Irish reel “The Silver Spear.”
Onstage Friday morning, guitarist Uwe Kruger related how the Kruger Brothers used to go to Doc’s house shortly after they came to live near the Watsons (they are originally from Switzerland). As they got ready to pick, Doc would say “don’t make me look bad, now,” and off they went. Sure, folks could take that as typical guitar-slinger bravado, but in the telling, Uwe made it clear that he felt encouraged by his hero. In awe still, but encouraged and free to try. Then he, Jens Kruger (banjo) and Joel Landsberg (bass) delivered a virtuosic and heartfelt set of traditional songs, covers of popular tunes (“People Get Ready,” “Fields of Gold”), originals (“Carolina in the Fall”), and swift, fluid instrumentals.
MerleFest has tons of opportunities to go and try your hand at making music, too. Dr. Banjo, otherwise known as Hot Rize’s Pete Wernick, runs a Jam Camp for all ages for the three days leading up to MerleFest. During the festival, the campers performed on the Cabin stage. The first band was made up of five tremendous players ranging in age between ten and 16. They called themselves Cold Rize, in honor of their mentor, and they were confident and looked like they were having fun performing Johnny Cash’s “Jackson” for the crowd of a couple thousand waiting to hear Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn. It’s pretty entertaining to hear those clear, young voices singing “We got married in a fever.”
Then, Pete brought up all 67 of his campers. They ranged in age from nine to 85 and wielded guitars, mandolins, banjos, fiddles, and even a hammer dulcimer. There were doctors, students, lawyers, engineers, stay-at-home moms, retired teachers, and more. But that night, they were performers at MerleFest, trading solos and verses on “Long Journey Home,” and it was good.
One of those campers was ten-year-old flatpicker Presley Barker (center, above). I ran into his mother and his grandparents on the first day of MerleFest and they told me about Presley, who is quickly becoming known as one of the best young guitarists around. He’s played at other major festivals and was in demand at MerleFest. He is as comfortable playing guitar as anyone I’ve seen, and he has a great country/bluegrass voice. We’ll see a lot of him, I’m sure. On Friday when I ran into his grandparents, Jodi and Ralph Hambee, Presley was inside one of the nearby Wilkes Community College buildings playing guitar with none other than Bryan Sutton. If there’s a place that has a stronger legacy (and, apparently, future) of flatpicking, I’m not sure where it is.
Other chances to get in there and play included the Homespun Music Instruction workshops that ran all day on Friday and Saturday. Hosted by Homespun founder, folk music icon, and instructor to thousands, Happy Traum, the workshops included a harmony singing session with the Honey Dewdrops, a hugely entertaining blues guitar discussion with Doug MacLeod, a session on guitar construction with master luthier Wayne Henderson, and a captivating hour on storytelling with Kiran Singh Sirah. The hands-on and information sessions were as varied as the performances on the 13 official stages.
Bluesman Doug MacLeod and his National Triolian named Moon. Doug entertained the audience with his stories about playing with Big Joe Turner, who only played in the key of C and who once went onstage without his set of teeth – he was playing with “a mouth full of empty.” Doug answered questions about implying chord changes in the blues with single-note lines, saying that “once your ear hears it, your ear buys it” even if the next time around you’re muting notes that imply the chords.
At MerleFest, you see folks of all ages in the bluegrass, traditional old-time, and “anything goes” picking tents and on the surrounding grounds coming together to make music, some for the first time, and some who’ve been doing this at the festival for as long as it has been running. My sense was that anyone with a case was welcome, and folks would gladly make room for you in the tents.
Another MerleFest highlight is Mando Mania, hosted by Tony Williamson. This year, Tony had Andrew Marlin of Mandolin Orange, Sam Bush, Mike Compton, and Emory Lester join in the fun, and they put on an hour clinic that included a mandolin history lesson, a mandolin gear discussion, and high-level performances.
Jerry Douglas played in several ensembles throughout the weekend, including the Hillside Jam with the Kruger Brothers and a spirited set with his band the Earls of Leicester.
Sam Bush came to MerleFest on the heels of the debut of a feature film about his life and career. Revival: The Sam Bush Story debuted at the Nashville Film Festival on April 21 and took the top prize for music documentaries at the festival. Sam talked a lot about Doc during his band’s high-energy performance on Friday night.
The crowd gathered for the Waybacks Hillside Album Hour on a rainy Saturday, waiting to learn which full classic album the band would perform this year. This is the seventh year that the Waybacks have chosen an iconic album, kept it a secret until the gig, then recorded the performance to release as a live album. Despite the cryptic hints that the band threw out in the weeks leading up to MerleFest, most people in the crowd had no idea what the set would be until Joan Osborne started signing a slow version of Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.”
The music products exhibitor’s tent was a popular destination for folks in between catching performances or heading to the jam tents. Exhibiting companies included Deering Banjos, Bourgeois Guitars, Collings Guitars, Taylor Guitars, Fishman, Blue Chip Picks, D’Addario Strings, Breezy Ridge and John Pearse Strings, Kyser Capos, Eastman Guitars and Mandolins, and a lot more. It was a great spot to go hang out and try all kinds of instruments and accessories.
Janet and Jamie Deering in the Deering Banjos booth. They’ve been attending MerleFest for years, and always offer amazing banjos in the silent auction. This year, they included a Deering Eagle and Deering Vega Old Tyme Wonder banjos in the auction.
Bourgeois Guitars had several great guitars at their booth. The Aged Tone OM on the far left of this photo is one of the nicest OMs I’ve played recently. Light, powerful, even, and played like butter.
An attendee being taken care of by Mary Faith Rhodes at the Breezy Ridge booth. Re-upping on strings for the endless jamming opportunities, no doubt.
Pegheads were in the house. This is Henri Lamiraux, who joined Peghead Nation early on and traveled from California to take in all that MerleFest had to offer. Great to catch up with him in his natural habitat, surrounded by guitars, banjos, mandolins, and accessories in the vendor tent.
It was a lot of fun talking with Mike Compton and Heidi Herzog about the second Monroe Mandolin Camp that they’re planning for this September in Kingston Springs, Tennessee. Mike has clearly absorbed Bill Monroe’s style and is excellent at breaking it down and teaching the classic bluegrass sound. It’s sure to be a must-attend mandolin event.
When all was said and done, MerleFest left me inspired to make more music with more folks who just love to connect with instruments in hand. There’s something about traditional music (and its offshoots) that spans generations, continents, and backgrounds, and that’s comforting these days. The Watsons got that and it seems that they passed on the word quite well.
All photos © Dan Gabel, 2015