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Merlefest 2009 - April 23-26: A Preview, and The Influence of Duane Allman On Newgrass

Gritz interviews James Nash of the Waybacks and New Grass Revival legend John Cowan on being a part of the now infamous Hillside Album Hour ‘Led Zep’ jam at last year’s Merlefest, on what is in store for Merlefest 2009, and how groups like the Allman Brothers Band and Led Zeppelin influenced the newgrass generation.

by Derek Halsey

Every once in a while the yells go up across the tree line from where we are camped. It is about 2 am and my friend Bill Hill and I are sitting under our rain tarps at the River’s Edge campground about a mile and a half from the Merlefest music festival. It is Friday night, the second day of this annual musical get-together held at Wilkes Community College in the foothills of North Carolina. We decide to grab up some gear and go look for a jam somewhere in the night. We walk past various camps and then cross the creek to a big fire where a large group of people are gathered to socialize and play some tunes. Hill breaks out his mandolin and I began to meet and talk with the fellow festies who have come from around the country to take in this spring time mountain music fête.

The first two days of Merlefest were eventful with the performances plentiful and diverse. At various times on multiple stages, some of the best musicians in the world did some jamming of their own. Tim O’Brien played with the Infamous Stringdusters, George Shuffler and Jim Lauderdale joined Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Cinch Mountain Boys for a song or two, Peter Rowan jammed with Sam Bush and Tony Rice, the Carolina Chocolate Drops took advantage of their main stage gig to bring out their 89-year old musical mentor Joe Thompson, and the Avett Brothers headlined the night. Thursday night showcased Marty Stuart and the Fabulous Superlatives, the Wilders and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Both the Avett Brothers and the Old Crow Medicine Show brought out the younger fans to the festival, as each band has built up quite a following.

As we hang out around the contained yet warm bonfire, the music kicks into full gear. There are fiddles, banjo, guitars and mandolins being picked, and even a wash tub bass to carry the bottom. It is mostly a bunch of young folks playing their tails off, something that is always good to see. Yet, amongst the hub-bub is an old man wearing an old school plaid shirt with the long sleeves buttoned who is sporting a pair of clogging shoes. He is dancing on a rectangle piece of plywood that is lying on the ground near the musicians. His name is Kyle Pennington and it is his 80th birthday and he is having a big time flatfoot dancing and clogging to the live music around the campfire. He didn’t want to sit at home on his birthday, and he knew that if he found a jam at the camps during the festival, nobody would mind him adding some fleet-footed percussion to the mix.

Then, somebody starts playing the famous opening riff to the Allman Bothers Band's "One Way Out." The musicians gathered round kick up the tempo and play it bluegrass style and get a steam roll going. Fueling the song is a hot banjo player who is putting some drive into the classic song, with all the verses being sung and various musicians taking turns throwing out one smoking solo after another. After an additional song or two, the banjo player says he has to go to bed because he is playing at Merlefest on the Cabin Stage at 10am later in the morning. Sure enough, one of the festival's performers was right there to push this jam forward in impressive fashion under the stars.

Doc Watson, the legendary 86-year old mountain music legend, is the host of this festival and his view of the music offered is what he calls “traditional plus,” which means bluegrass and mountain music interspersed with other genres. Watson seems to have always been open-minded when it comes to music, and that was furthered when he began performing with his late son Merle, whom the festival is named after. Merle was of the newgrass generation, which basically means the generation of bluegrass musicians who came up in the 1960’s and 70’s and had an open mind about all kinds of music. They listened to Bill Monroe, and they listened to Jimi Hendrix. They listened to Flatt and Scruggs, and they listened to the Allman Brothers Band. To the purists chagrin, the end result was an opening up of the music during that time period, highlighted by musicians such as John Hartford, The Earl Scruggs Review, The David Grisman Quintet and, of course, the New Grass Revival.

Thirty-plus years later, the influence of the newgrass generation is stronger than ever, and that becomes the impetus for the jam at Merlefest 2008 that became one of the most talked about and downloaded of the year. On Saturday afternoon around 5pm, when the rest of the festival is taking a supper break, a band from California called The Waybacks is scheduled to play on the Hillside Stage, which is tucked away on a corner of the festival grounds. The Waybacks consists of James Nash on guitar, Warren Hood on fiddle and mandolin, Chuck Hamilton on drums and Joe Kyle Jr. on bass.

The gig is billed as “The Hillside Album Hour” and the premise is that the Waybacks would recreate a classic album from the rock and roll days and do it newgrass style. When the first notes of Led Zeppelin’s second album pour out of the speakers as the Waybacks take the stage with an array of all-star musical guests, an inspired hour of music unexpectedly leads to a magical connection between audience and musician that will be the talk of the festival circuit for months afterward.

Another thing that will spread the word about this jam after the festival ends is the decision by the festival to stream the whole concert online, which you can listen to here (scroll down to “Merlefest Hillside Album Hour),

And, subsequently, FestivalLink.net then offered up a high quality off-the-boards download of the concert which you can purchase here,

 “You definitely get feedback,” says James Nash of the Waybacks, about last year’s jam. “The cool thing about it was the number of people that stayed out in the rain to see that show because that took some commitment. It was raining pretty hard during our set and everybody was getting pretty wet and we were thrilled that there was a party out there in the rain. But yeah, a lot of people have seen it and heard about it through the grapevine and seen it on Youtube.”

The idea to host a yearly Hillside Album Hour show came a year earlier when the Waybacks hosted a jam at the same stage at about the same time that featured Bob Weir, Sam Bush, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, and Sam Bush.

“That was what clued us in to how cool a scene that Saturday Hillside spot can be,” says Nash. “When we had the opportunity to do that same spot again, the Saturday Hillside is a great stage, even when it’s raining, so it seems like the perfect time to have a little bit of a party. And yeah, you can’t recreate what you did when you have Sam and Gillian and Dave and Bob Weir, of all people to have up there playing with you. But, still, it’s a time when (the festival audience) has seen great music for two days already, and it’s like coals to Newcastle. How can you possibly do something that is going to be better than what people have already seen for two days? You have some of the best players in the world up there playing music so, really, it is a good time to let off some steam and say, ‘Hey, we’ve all heard great music this weekend. Let’s have a party.’ That’s what it turned into when we did that set with those guys a couple of years ago and that was what we were trying to recreate with the Zeppelin thing, just a little bit of that vibe.”

The first move after deciding to put together last year’s Hillside Album Hour was to choose which classic rock album to play, or I should say, ‘tweak.’ After considering many records, the second Led Zeppelin album was chosen.

“It’s one of those albums where every song on there is memorable and touches people,” says Nash. “What I thought was so cool about that record is that everybody in the audience at one of our shows has heard, at least, some of the songs on that record, and a lot of people have heard them all. Most of them are not tunes that you hear on the radio very much. Sometimes you hear ‘Ramble On’ on the radio and ‘Whole Lotta Love’ is popular. But, some of the other tunes are great songs, and you don’t hear people do ‘Heartbreaker’ or ‘Living Lovin’ Maid’ very much. And, ‘Thank You,’ talk about a beautiful song. Every song on there is great. So, to me it had that perfect mix of being instantly recognizable but not having been played to death.”

Once the idea was hatched to rework “Led Zeppelin II” with electric guitars and fiddles and banjos, getting the right musicians together to make it happen became the focus.

“It was such a special performance with all of the different people involved,” says Nash. “I wouldn’t have ever dreamed of putting that set together without John Cowan. The idea of trying to cover Led Zeppelin music is some sort of suicide mission and John is one of the few people that, not only that I know but that I can think of, who could pull that off. We just knew from the beginning that if we got some cool instrumental arrangements together, that he could come in at the last minute and kill the stuff, which is what he did. Now, of course, the down side of that is that, although people are starting to get over the Led Zeppelin thing, we still get some requests for it at shows. For a few months after we played that at Merlefest it seemed that at every show we were playing, people had either seen it on Youtube or was there at Merlefest and everybody’s yelling out Led Zeppelin songs for us to cover. Warren (Hood) and I are looking at each like, ‘Are you crazy? Do you people really want to hear us try to sing like Robert Plant or John Cowan? Because, we can’t do it.’  So, that’s the down side to getting a star guest singer in there to sing with you because people want to hear the music even when he is not there.”

Asking John Cowan to take on the roll of Led Zeppelin lead singer Robert Plant, which is no easy task, was the key, and Nash didn’t know if Cowan would go for it or not.

“Of course, the big phone call was to call John Cowan to make sure that he was onboard with it,” says Nash. “I had no idea whether he would like that idea or not, the idea of covering the whole album and whether he wanted to sing Led Zeppelin material. Obviously, it’s difficult and there is a lot of baggage along with singing like Robert Plant because he is such an iconic figure.  So, I really didn’t know how John would react and I called him up and said, ‘Hey, I got this idea for Merlefest, that we would cover a whole album and we were hoping that you would sing it.’ And, he says, ‘Yeah, ok. What album?’ I said, ‘Led Zeppelin II,’ and he sat there just silent for the longest five seconds. I’m thinking, ‘Oh no, he hates this idea and he is trying to think of some way to get out of this.’ After about five seconds he goes, ‘Dude, I am so in.’ So, then, I was excited. I thought he would like it. I wouldn’t have thrown him an idea that I didn’t think he was going to like. But still, you just don’t know. We hadn’t worked together that much and it was a little bit of an off idea. But, he said, ‘You know, man, I grew up with that record. I already probably know all of the songs so I’ll print out the lyrics.’ That was when I knew it would all come together. Once we found out that Cowan was in it, anybody else that we throw in there is going to be great because he is going to carry the day.”

“I think James just called me,” says Cowan. “I think he was the first person I talked to about it. Of course, I was completely game since I had just been to see Zeppelin a couple of months before that in London. I went over there as John Paul Jones’ guest whom I met at Merlefest four years ago. It was wonderful. It exceeded my expectations. It was a rock show like I’m not sure they have anymore. Rock shows are different now. But, it was very vital and it didn’t seem nostalgic. I saw Warren Haynes at the show and then we all went to a party at John’s the next night and he was there. Yeah, we did (pick some bluegrass at the party). It was actually a friend of John’s art studio. It wasn’t John’s house. It was myself and John Carter Cash, Warren (Haynes) was there, all of the Uncle Earl girls were there. Bela (Fleck) was there. John’s wife Lauren is a good fiddle player. Its funny because I had to take the Underground to get there and just coincidentally, it was getting late and I was like, ‘Man, I probably ought to go,’ and I actually got on the last train. And, I was staying way across town so I would have been screwed had I not, somehow, intuitively decided to leave at that moment.”

After Cowan agreed to sing the lead vocals, it dawned on him that the task at hand would not be easy to pull off.

“To be completely honest, I was 54 when we did that and I was like, ‘Gosh, I wonder if I’m going to be able to hit all of these notes,’” says Cowan. “Somehow I did. But, you got to remember, Robert was 23 or 24 when they did that record and he don’t hit them anymore, and I don’t blame him. It was great. We had gotten together the night before where (The Waybacks) were staying and they way had their act together, which made all of the difference in the world. James and the guys were very well rehearsed because it would have been a cluster**** had they not been. I knew that if I could pull my self together and hit the notes it was going to be good because they really prepared well for it.”

 “Robert has been one of my heroes since I was a kid,” continues Cowan. “The first Zeppelin album came out when I was 15 or 16 years old. I just wore the grooves out on it. Of course, the bands that we were in were all playing ‘Communication Breakdown’ and stuff like that. So, by the time the second record came along, I was ready to go. It’s kind of like the ‘Live at the Fillmore,’ the Allman Brothers album, I could probably sing you every solo. It’s just ingrained in my brain because I wore it out. I remember early in the New Grass Revival, maybe in the first or second year I was in the band, somebody gave a live review of us and they thought they were insulting me by comparing me to Robert Plant. I thought it was a compliment.”

 With Cowan onboard, the other all-star musicians needed began to line up.
   “We had Betse Ellis and Phil Wade from the Wilders, we had Dr. Banjo Pete Wernick, Tom Rozum and Byron House came in to play keyboards,” says Nash. “And, we had Shad Cobb on fiddle and Tom Ball. Jeff Autry was going to be there and he came in and rehearsed with us the day before and it sounded great. Then, they day of the show he got some sort of horrible tooth problem and basically had to get some emergency dental work. He missed a couple of sets that day and we had a whole lot of fun and I’m sure Jeff did not have a whole lot of fun that day. We missed him and we had to rearrange some stuff at the last minute to make up for it.”

One guest musician who stepped up in a big way, which you can hear on the recordings, is the fiddler from the Wilders, Betse Ellis.
   “It was a matter of suiting the music to the particular talent that we had to play on it,” says Nash. “I’ve always loved Betse, and she and I have always gotten along great and we have played a little bit together here and there. What I’ve always loved about her is that they are basically playing old time music in the Wilders, but she absolutely brings a full-on punk ethic to what they are doing. I thought that was great. So, I thought that if we give her something that is full-on rock to play on her fiddle, she’ll take it and run with it. I was so psyched because not only did she do that, but when we got together backstage before we did the set, when I had seen her a couple of hours before she was playing with the Wilders and she was wearing a dress and doing the old time thing. Then, backstage she completely changed her clothes for our show and was wearing a black mini-skirt and mascara and stuff and she went full-on with it, with the glam rock. I thought that was awesome. She really inspired the rest of us to kick it up a notch because she had such a great attitude about the whole thing.”

Once the jam began, the positive response from the hearty rain-soaked crowd was immediate.
   “I think people were kind of in shock, to be perfectly honest,” says Cowan. “I think they came expecting,’ Well, this will probably be pretty good.’ But, I think they were a little bit taken back by how good it was. That’s my opinion. We had some banjo on a tune or two. It was great. I loved it. Well, people just loved it. I mean, it hasn’t been the topic of conversation much recently, but it seems like for three or four months after that where we would go, people would come up and talk to me about it and say, ‘That was amazing. That was incredible. That was awesome.’ That kind of stuff.”

Merlefest has been good for the Waybacks, a band that is capable of playing a wide variety of music.
   “I could talk about Merlefest for a long time,” says Nash. “Starting for me because I grew up in North Carolina. I was born in Durham and lived in Chapel Hill until I was eight and then my parents moved to Nashville, Tennessee, so I lived there for a while. It’s wonderful for me to get back to North Carolina and to have a reason for me to go back there again. Merlefest really put us on the map. They were one of the first festivals to book us, and still one of the best festivals to book us. That is why we are able to play in North Carolina, because people have heard us play and people who own venues have come out to our shows. So, it is amazing what playing at a festival like Merlefest does for the whole region in giving us the ability to come out there and play and have people know who we are.” 

The Waybacks’ latest album is called “Loaded” and it is a testament to their diverse influences with songs that range from Allman-esque slide guitar to Celtic influences to the overall Americana sound. The CD is produced by session all-star and bassist for the Sam Bush Band, Byron House.

 “Oh yeah, there’s absolutely an Allman Brothers influence (on the title cut),” says Nash. “I think Duane (Allman) is the first person I ever heard play slide guitar, and it works out pretty good if he is the first and last person you hear play slide guitar. He pretty much wrote the book on it in my world. I think ‘Statesboro Blues’ was the first slide guitar I’d ever heard and I said, ‘I got to learn how to do that.’ I knew this guy that I took lessons from and I came to him and said, ‘How does he get that sound?’ When I heard that song, I didn’t even know what a slide was. I had really and truly never seen anybody hold a slide on their finger because I hadn’t seen a lot of people play. I just heard things on the record and I had no idea how to get that sound. He said, ‘That’s a slide.’ I said, ‘A what?’ We were in the back of the music store where I took the lessons so this guy, Jerry Kimbrough that I took lesson from in Nashville, he said, ‘Alright, we’re going to the front of the store.’ We walked up to the front of the store and he bought me a slide off the wall and we went back and he showed me how to use it. Of course, I’ve never figured out how to sound like Duane. (At first) it sounds like strangling cats.  It’s horrible. But, the sounds that you can make when you get good are unreal. It is a life-long quest to sound good with it. What the slide does, I think, is that it makes every note that you play even more important because there is so much variation in the type of vibrato and inflection, the way that you can hold notes and go in and out of them. It turns the guitar into a little bit more of a singing voice.”

While the Waybacks are about modern music in modern times, the classic rock era when both the Allman Brothers and Led Zeppelin and so many others were making new and inventive music fascinates Nash.

“Just to think back about what it must have been like to make that record,” says Nash about “Led Zeppelin II. “You talk about people being in a state of grace when they create some of this stuff and that seemed like one of those albums where you know they didn’t spend six months slaving over it. Looking at Led Zeppelin’s schedule, they made that album pretty quickly. And, they were under a lot of pressure to make it because it was their second record and, frankly, second records are frequently terrible from bands. You put out a first record that you’ve been working on for five or ten years and you get really famous and then your follow up is a ton of pressure.

“I think that what Led Zeppelin was able to do, given that suddenly they were on top of the world and touring around and under all of this pressure to make another record, and then they come out with ‘Led Zeppelin II’ which, if anything, is better than ‘Led Zeppelin I.’ There are not a lot of bands that can do that. So, I look back in amazement at that period of time. And, really, there was a couple of years there where it seemed like everybody was on fire. There was Led Zeppelin, but look at what the Rolling Stones were doing, and look at what the Beatles were doing both together and separately. What Hendrix was doing, and Janis and Cream. I hope that I can see in my lifetime a time when there is that much really and truly inspired music coming out of that many people all at once.”

The reason why a similar period of musical creation hasn’t happened in recent years might be due to the fact that young folks still gravitate to the classic rock sounds in-between listening to rap and emo. For music lovers of all ages, the recordings of that era hold up, which is why last year’s jam went over so well.

“What amazes me is that teenage kids are still listening to Led Zeppelin,” says Nash. “I think about it and when I was a teenager, I wasn’t listening to music that was 30 years old. I did listen to Led Zeppelin when I was a kid, but it was partly because I played guitar and probably because the music wasn’t as old then. You would think that kids this age would think that old music would be Nirvana. But, no, they're listening to Led Zeppelin and the Beatles and stuff which, to me, points out how timeless this music is. When you make great music that touches people, it doesn’t go away that easily. The fact that it is making it onto another generation, I think some of that is the guitar riffs. That’s another reason why we picked that album, thinking it would be so much fun. That music is really riff-based in a way that you don’t hear that often. Every song on that record has a hooky guitar riff, and how cool is that? I knew it would be fun to play.”

“When you think of towering influences in American music, when you think back of Duane Allman and Jimi Hendrix and Hank Williams and Janis Joplin, they all died before they were 30,” continues Nash. “It is amazing to think of the mark that they made on the world of music, and they didn’t live as long as I have. To me, it’s kind of staggering. I listen to some of this stuff in reverence at what these people were able to accomplish in such a short period of time. Most musicians struggle for 30 or 40 years to try and come up with a sound and identity, and very few people are as successful as those people have been and they pretty much did it when they were kids.”

And yet, at the heart of Merlefest is an 86-year old guitarist and singer Doc Watson who was making legendary music long before the classic rock era got off the ground. Along the way, Watson became a major part of the evolution of lead guitar playing, especially on an acoustic version of the instrument.

“Probably the first two guys that I heard play acoustic guitar in a way that just grabbed me and made me say, ‘I want to do that,’ were Tony Rice and Doc Watson, two North Carolina boys,” says Nash. “When I was a kid I was listening mainly to rock music and was into electric guitar and had never been that interested in acoustic guitar because it seemed like in rock music, especially in the 80s when I was growing up, whenever there was an acoustic guitar in it, it was always kind of a mellow thing here and there, or an intro. There wasn’t anything that touched me deeply whereas when I heard those guys I thought, ‘Wow, this is something that I’d like to be able to do.’ They really kind of opened the world up. Hearing Doc and Tony introduced me to guys like Django and Les Paul and sort of a whole world of influence that I had never been exposed to until hearing them.”

John Cowan, who has known Watson for years, also holds this great mountain musician in the highest regard.

“My opinion of Doc Watson is, even though he is a friend of mine, I get real nervous around him,” says Cowan. “I highly revere him. I’ve been playing music with him and Merle since the mid-70’s. He’s an icon. He’s a national treasure as far as I’m concerned. Merlefest is changing over the years. It continues to change and I don’t agree with all of the changes. But, as long as Doc is still there, it could be alright. That won’t be going on forever, unfortunately. I don’t know what will happen once Doc’s gone. Doc is ok now, but he had a rough winter and a rough fall, but he is doing good now. Rosa Lee (Doc’s wife) is doing well. Last year, she was pretty sick and she has come back and they’re both doing good at this particular time. I think it will be a good festival for both of them.”

 “I think his contributions are kind of inestimable,” continues Cowan. “Doc was there flatpicking fiddle tunes and stuff on the guitar way before Clarence White did it, and way before Tony Rice did it. He might be one of the first. The whole thing about Clarence Ashley and how Doc was discovered and he made those records for Folkways, he was already an icon in the folk world in the early 1960s. He’s managed to touch a lot of people with his own music, which he has never compromised. (Doc’s music) has reached out through to the folk world, through the country world, through the bluegrass world. He is a guy that is highly revered certainly by millions of people and by millions of musicians. Like I said, it is kind of inestimable how much influence Doc has had on the world of music.”

Cowan also knew Doc’s son and musical partner Merle, who was also a lover of the Allman Brothers Band. Merle influenced his father to the point where one of Doc’s favorite songs is “Nights In White Satin” by the Moody Blues.

“Merle was ate up with the Allmans,” remembers Cowan. “Back in the mid-70’s, we’d get together and trade music that we were digging. We’d turn him on to the Dixie Dregs and stuff and he really dug that. We were really listening to some crazy ass **** back then. We were listening to the Mahavishnu Orchestra. He was just completely down with the Allman Brothers. That’s all there is to it. He just loved it. I don’t know who turned him on to them. I wasn’t us. It might have been Joe Smothers or some of the guys in Frosty Morn. But, he was all about it. He loved Duane. I’m sure he would have loved Derek (Trucks).”

Now, as Merlefest 2009 approaches, the buzz is about what album the Waybacks and guests will recreate this year. It seems as if a new tradition has been made. In fact, FestivalLink.net has started a contest where folks can guess what the album will be with prizes to be given away to the winners. According to the contest page;

 “The band is dropping hints from now until Fest Friday. A winner will be chosen from the correct entries. Follow The Waybacks on Twitter at http://twitter.com/TheWaybacks, or become a Fan of any of their Facebook, MySpace, or ILike pages to get hints about the album selection. The prize will be a short stack of swag from FestivaLink, the Waybacks, and Mr. Cowan, a free download (the Album Hour or another MerleFest show of your choice) and (if you are at the fest) a visit backstage with the artists.”
You can enter the contest here with the deadline for entries being April 24th,

Whatever the band chooses to play, the anticipation will be as large as the expected crowd. The word is out, and the Waybacks know it.

 “It has started a whole new tradition so, of course, that dug a hole for us and now we are trying to get together about what we’re going to do this year because there is going to more expectation because it turned out so well last year,” says Nash, about Merlefest 2009. “We’re not a hundred percent decided on what we’re doing yet. There’s still some logistics about everybody that we can have involved. We’re trying to deal with some other artists, so if I told you, it might not even happen and we got to keep it a secret. What were trying to do is to make it as fun and exciting as last year and that’s going to be really hard. What I will tell you is that it’s not going to be Led Zeppelin.”

Merlefest 2009 will take place on April 23 through 26th. The line up scheduled to perform on 14-plus stages over the four days include Doc Watson, Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Travis Tritt with the Jerry Douglas Band, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, The Del McCoury Band, Donna The Buffalo, The Duhks, Rayna and Dan Gellert, The Grascals, Tift Merritt, Blue Highway, The Waybacks, Missy Raines the New Hip,  The Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Cowan, Great Big Sea, Dailey and Vincent Band, The Steeldrivers, Jim Lauderdale, The Greencards, BeauSoleil Avec Michael Doucet, Wayne Henderson, David Bromberg, Mountain Heart, Nashville Bluegrass Band, David Holt, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, Linda Ronstadt with Mariachi Los Camperos and many more acts. More information can be found at www.merlefest.org.




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