The elegantly engraved arm rest of Jimmy Stelling’s five-string masterpiece, one of the coveted prizes in this year’s MerleFest raffle, reflects the commitment to quality that this behemoth of a festival exempifies, by most any measure. This 23rd edition of the annual tribute to Doc Watson’s too-early departed son Merle, still hosted by his dad, the 87-year-old national treasure, offered four rain-free days of music for so many palates. From Thursday night’s packed house for the Zac Brown Band to Sunday’s record crowd for the Avett Brothers’ rousing finale, John Adair and his team programmed a lineup that held reward for everyone, especially the open-minded who were looking for something fresh and exciting. The music has moved to new places beyond the hills and hollows around Deep Gap, North Carolina, still Doc Watson’s home. But there’s an undeniable kinship among musicians and those who gather to hear them in this inviting place. Missing were MerleFest stalwarts like John Cowan, Gillian Welch, Emmylou Harris, Bela Fleck and Tim O’Brien. But traditions were carried well by Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, the Kruger Brothers, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, Jim Lauderdale and of course Sam Bush. MerleFest is difficult to describe to one who hasn’t experienced it over a period of time, so if that includes you, I’ll let the camera do most of the talking for the rest of this post. If you like what you see, consider making the trip down for the 24th. April 28-May 1, 2011.
A Saturday afternoon surprise saw Arthel Watson awarded an honorary doctorate by a trio of professors from Boston’s prestigious Berklee College of Music…a deserving Dr. Doc.
The sacred steel power of the Lee Brothers joined by Rob & Ron McCoury and Jason Carter brought another level of praise to the Sunday Watson Stage. Look for the Travelin’ McCourys with Dierks Bentley in Richmond at the National on May 18. (Still a chance to win tickets in the “On The Verge” post below)
MerleFest serves as a family-style homecoming and reunion for artists and fans alike. Casey Driessen proposed to Molly during a set on the Cabin Stage a few years ago…this year guesting with the Duhks, Casey and Molly brought daughter Emmette to her first one. MerleFest in 3-D.
My home away from home for these four days is the old log cabin-turned-tweener stage next to the Watson. Here Cadillac Sky cranks it up the day after their sold out AC&T show. Unbridled energy and creativity. They love this place.
The Lovell Sisters staged a Thursday night reunion including elder sister Jessica who’s sitting out the new band Larkin Poe started by younger sibs Megan and Rebecca.
Jackson Hole’s Pete & Anne Sibley posed for a backstage Cabin portrait after their short set of their pristine harmonies. If you were at their JAMinc/In Your Ear concert, you know what I mean.
A very pleasant re-discovery of Biscuit Burner founder Shannon Whitworth and her tasteful band proved to be a personal highlight this year. I’d forgotten about her dark and dreamy vocals which were put to good use I’m told during the Waybacks’ ambitious Album Hour set on the Hillside Stage. Shannon rendered two selections from the Beatles’ Abbey Road album, including “Something.”
Anchorage, Alaska’s award-winning Bearfoot featuring newest member Odessa Jorgensen on fiddle, held a prime spot on the Cabin Saturday night between Steve Martin with the Steep Canyon Rangers and Elvis Costello & The Sugarcanes.
Zac Brown was a surprise Friday night guest on the Cabin Stage with his pals Rory Feeks and Joey Martin. His closing set the night before set a Thursday night MerleFest crowd record.
Brothers Tony & Wyatt Rice got the Unit back together Saturday afternoon after the former signed copies of his just-out biography Still Inside-The Tony Rice Story. I hear it’s a great read…order yours here.
Seems like every year, some prodigious young talent gets a chance to shine and steal hearts. DC-based Celtic band Scythian brought up 8-year-old Ruthie Shumway from Charlotte to fiddle an old-time tune that may be the moment we look back on and say “Remember when?”
Another first-time experience was the intense Indian-infused blues created by the worldly Harry Manx, who’s called the essential link between the music of East and West. He brought strange instruments including the sitar-slide guitar above and a stage full of gear and proceeded to cast a spell. It’s a thrill to hear someone who’s found his niche and mines it thoroughly. Go see this guy if you get the chance.
And for something completely different, how about Mr. Yahooo-ooooo himself Wylie Gustafson who rocked our Richmond Folk Festival last fall with his Wild West cowboy tunes and a yodel to die for.
New York- based Red Molly, a gifted and practiced trio I’d heard really good things about, conveniently made its first MerleFest appearance at the Cabin Sunday. They more than lived up to advance billing.
Saturday’s closer was Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, his rootsy rock band that included Jerry Douglas, Stuart Duncan, Mike Compton and Jim Lauderdale.
Jim Lauderdale again chaired the Chris Austin Songwriter’s Contest that’s produced such high-profile past winners as Gillian Welch, Tift Merritt and Adrienne Young. Berklee product Liz Longley, who won the General category this year, could be joining that list. Time will tell.
Anticipation was running high for Saturday night’s Steve Martin bluegrass set with his newfound road mates, Carolina’s Steep Canyon Rangers. The multi-faceted white-haired and -suited comedian who used his banjo-playing skills as a gimmick during his early years, now seriously celebrates the five-string through a set full of original and imaginative tunes he plays at a level that’s no laughing matter. Woody Platt and the boys provide the perfect musical backdrop and comedic foil as their iconic bandleader indulges himself and delights the crowd with just the right amount of his signature sense of humor. He even encored with “King Tut.” And it worked. Big fun.
But when all’s said and done, it’s all about Sam Bush. At the very first MerleFest in 1988 with his renegade New Grass Revival, the newly crowned “Father of Newgrass” (above with Friday closers Little Feat) brings the goods that have made him the ring leader of the most beloved and respected group of super-pickers. His still youthful energy, imagination and ability to fit effortlessly into any musical context, has set him apart from his more mortal contemporaries. And despite his lofty perch, he’s as generous and approachable as your next door neighbor. Sam exemplifies what draws so many of us to this music…breathtaking artistry from real, relatable people. And it doesn’t hurt that he married well. Sam & Lynn continue to defy the odds against show biz marriages. Their joyful inseparability is inspiring. Just like this remarkable union of music and fellowship that is MerleFest. The memory bank has been refilled.