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Merlefest at 21, Doc Watson at 85: Festival Notes

A Great American Music Festival And Its Host At The Crossroads

by Derek Halsey

"In 1934, Dad made me a little home-made banjo,” remembers Doc Watson, on the historic three-CD album of performances and conversation recorded with David Holt called “Legacy.” “It had a cat skin head on it. First he put a groundhog skin head on it, but it was too thick, it didn't work good.”

Although politically incorrect by today’s standards, this story of the creation of Doc’s home-made banjo was not all that unusual in the North Carolina mountains of that time. His grandmother had an old cat that was on its last legs, and she asked Doc’s brother to put it out of its misery. His father, however, saw an opportunity to make good use of the cat hide to craft for his young son, blind from youth due to an eye infection, his first banjo to play.

“It couldn't see, it couldn't eat, so Dad thought about it for a minute and said, 'I seen a J. Rodgers advertisement in Sears-Roebuck for a banjo head, if you boys will skin that thing I'll make you a banjo head out of it,'” continues Doc. “Well, we both dreaded it. But, Lenny said, 'Well, I bet that would sound good. I bet it would be as clear as you could read a paper through it when Daddy got done with it.' Between Daddy and Lenny they got that thing right, with all the hair off of it, and it was just about clear. Oh, man, it had a beautiful sound."

Doc would learn how to play that little 8-inch diameter banjo, as well as the harmonica and guitar, as time went on. As he grew older, however, the guitar would become his first love. By the 1950’s he was playing electric guitar in a local dance band and on the nights when the fiddler didn’t show up, Doc would try and play the fiddle parts with his guitar. It took him a long time to learn those riffs, but that simple adjustment set him on the path to creating the unique lead licks on the acoustic guitar that he is known for, a technique called flat picking. With riffs built on top of those learned from his earlier guitar influences, such as Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Garland, and Grady Martin, Doc broke new flat picking ground and helped to popularize the style of guitar playing in the bluegrass, mountain folk, and country blues fields.

In the 1960’s, music promoter Ralph Rinzler heard Doc’s playing, and the enamored Rinzler soon had him performing around the country. While Doc’s career had many ups and downs as the 1960’s progressed, the folk and bluegrass music fans sure took notice. He was a big hit at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, and he recorded an album with the popular Flatt and Scruggs a few years later.

In 1972 his career got another boost when he appeared on the historic three album project called “Will The Circle Be Unbroken,” a collaboration hosted by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band that brought together the new hippy generation with the old school country and bluegrass artists of the day.

Doc’s only son, Eddy Merle Watson, was named after two of his father’s favorite musicians, Eddy Arnold and Merle Travis. Doc first heard Merle Travis play guitar on the radio station WLW at night, which broadcasted out of Cincinnati, Ohio, and Travis’ music influenced his fingerpick style of guitar playing. When Merle was a teenager, he started to perform and record with his father. By the beginning of the 1970’s, Merle became enamored with the slide guitar playing of Duane Allman of the Allman Brothers Band and adapted the technique to the acoustic guitar. The father and son duo then went on to win multiple Grammy awards. And, in 1985, Frets Magazine gave Merle their “Best Finger Picking Guitarist-Folk/Blues or Country” award. Unfortunately, that would be the last year of Merle’s life.

As the fateful story goes, On October 22, 1985, Merle got up in the middle of the night to work on some wood paneling that he was putting up in his basement. A piece of wood hit the saw blade he was using and shot a large splinter deep into Merle’s upper arm. He then got onto his farm tractor and tried to drive to a nearby house to get some help to take out the embedded piece of wood. After the splinter was successfully taken out at a neighbor’s house, a weakened Merle got back on his tractor and tried to drive back home. The tractor slipped over a steep embankment and fell on top of him, ending his life instantly.

Two years later, a small tribute concert was put together in remembrance of Merle Watson, and that event became the first-ever Merlefest held at Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The first ‘festival’ basically amounted to a single stage on a flat bed truck. Twenty years later, the event has evolved into a 10-stage, 150-plus artist festival that is known worldwide. These days Doc’s grandson, Richard Watson, plays the guitar as his late father Merle did, and is fortunate enough to be able to play with his Grandpa at every festival.

The 20th anniversary Merlefest was held in 2007, with over 70,000 people attending over the four days of the festival. With the huge growth of the event, there has also been some growing pains.

While the music at the Merlefest 2007 was typically spectacular, there were some rumblings heard as some long time staffers left the organization and some issues concerning the influence of corporate sponsorship crept into the discussion by the fans. The concerns centered around the fear that corporate considerations would cause a change in direction and dilution in the unique mix of music presented at the festival.
As these issues progressed, all eyes were on the announcement of the lineup for the upcoming festival. But, after the list of performers for Merlefest 2008 was released, which can be viewed at www.merlefest.org, the exceptional lineup shows that the heart and soul of what makes the music of Merlefest special is still on track. There is always the concern that once Doc Watson leaves this Earth, and he is 85 years old now, that his influence will be missed. But, Doc is still going strong, and he released this statement about Merlefest 2008;

“When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional-plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play. Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional-plus’ and this year’s line-up shows what that is all about.” ~Doc Watson

First, let’s look at why Merlefest 2007 was special, and then we’ll explore why Merlefest 2008 could be even more so.


Merlefest 2007 - A Shooting Star From Merle


“The ongoing sand sculpture takes shape at Merlefest 2007”

The 20th anniversary Merlefest provided the musical high points for which the festival is known. For my fellow travelers and I, the hoped-for moments where the music is at times exhilarating and moving were there, including an emotional moment onstage by Doc Watson that fans are still talking about.

As with past visits to Merlefest, our group of festival goers was an international one, featuring friends that had traveled from other countries and other continents. My journey to Merlefest began on the Appalachian Highway – route 32. While the name of the road might conjure up places like Virginia, Tennessee, Kentucky, or West Virginia, this Appalachian Highway makes it way through the southeastern Ohio foothills. My brother Doug is driving and our first stop on the way to Merlefest will be in Huntington, West Virginia, where we will meet up with our Uncle Wayne Wormy Smith. About an hour outside of Cincinnati on route 32, we stop at the Keim Family Market on Burnt Cabin Road.

While the Pennsylvania Dutch Country gets all the press, the fact is, there are more Amish folks living in Ohio than in any other state in the union. Roy Keim joined a migration to this part of Ohio a couple of decades back, drawn in by the fertile farmland and open spaces. He began his family market by selling goods from his horse and buggy alongside the Appalachian Highway, and that eventually led to land bought, a building built, and a favorite stop for many who are looking for fresh Amish goods and woodworks.

As we pull into the market, there are wooden buildings for sale everywhere, as well as hickory rocking chairs, birdhouses, cedar chests, and other hand-made items. Inside the building is home furniture on one side, and dry goods, bulk spices, and fresh edibles on the other side. While I usually buy smoked baby Swiss cheese when I visit, this time I take advantage of the farmer’s cheese price of $2.50 a pound and add some sliced roast beef to the order. After the young lady behind the counter wraps my goods, dressed in her Amish bonnet and dress, Mr. Keim takes his place behind the cash register.

I haven’t talked to Mr. Keim in over a year. Our initial conversations when we first met years ago centered around the ever-present canoe that I would have tied to the top of my station wagon, and the fishing I would do in it. When I would stop in at the market I would usually either be starting a road trip, or getting back in the car to drive that final leg home after a long trek.

“Hello Mr. Keim. How are you?” I say, as he adds up my brother’s bill. He looks us over, faintly recognizes me, yet he can’t quite place us. But, standing there in his brimmed hat and Amish beard and suspenders, he knows how to handle it.

“Have I spoken with you men before?” he asks. As always, all I have to do is bring up the canoe on the roof of my car….and smallmouth bass fishing.

“Are you going on a fishing trip now?” he asks. I tell him no, that we were going to a music festival in North Carolina. I ask him if he has been fishing lately. “Yes,” he says. “I went this morning. I walked one of the creeks for a while and fished the pools. I caught three good-size bass on a small spinner bait. It was a nice day, and I was out there for about an hour. After I caught a few good fish, I was satisfied and came back.”
Two different cultures, yet that same tug on the fishing line.

By nightfall we are in Huntington, the small town in western West Virginia where both Doug and I were born. Uncle Wormy is the reason why all of us found out about Merlefest, as he has talked the festival up for years. After my first trip to the event, where four days and ten stages of performances over-filled my head like a hard-squeezed Play-Do mold, I have gone back every year since. After an evening of libations and family talk, Thursday morning finds us packing up Uncle Wormy’s gear, and then hitting the road to North Wilkesboro, North Carolina where the festival is held. Riding with Uncle Wormy is his long time friend, Katie Thacker, from nearby Lincoln County, who will be taking in her first Merlefest.

It is a dark, cloudy day when we reach North Wilkesboro. The festival has already started, but we are more interested in setting up our tents and gear before the rain hits. Sure enough, as we pull up to the check-in site at our campground, there is John Taylor and his son William, our friends who have traveled from Canberra, New South Wales, Australia. The long weekend is off to a good start.

Slowly but surely we set up camp, talking and catching up as we go. Although it is the first day of Merlefest, we decide to forego taking the shuttle busses to the festival grounds about a mile away to see a band or two and concentrate on the task at hand. We haven’t seen John in three years, and other friends are showing up as the evening wears on. We have camped in the same place every year – River’s Edge Campground, Lot C, back by the tree line.

As less and less light makes it way through the drooping wet-pillow rain clouds, Bill Hill shows up, a friend and musician from Fayetteville, West Virginia. He has brought the fold-out tarp that we are counting on to keep us dry. Katie Thacker also brought a similar tarp, so we put them side by side, creating a place to hang out in when the rain comes. Getting your shoes wet is one thing. Letting a slew of musical instruments get soaked is a whole different consideration.

Fortunately, Merlefest is broadcast live on a local FM radio station, so we turn the radio on and listen to the live performances from the main stage. The John Cowan Band play a fine set, as does the CherryHolmes Band. Around 9pm the host of Merlefest, the legendary Doc Watson, performs a tribute to his son Merle with fellow musicians Jack Lawrence, Bill Mathis, and T. Michael Coleman. The music ends with the wonderful “20th Merlefest Kickoff Jam” hosted by John Cowan that includes bluegrass veteran Pete Wernick along with younger musicians such as Sierra Hull, members of the group Uncle Earl, as well as a few old timers like Tut Taylor. Collaboration is encouraged at Merlefest, and the festival is off to a good start in that regard.

Uncle Wormy at the River’s Edge Campground near Merlefest

Eventually our friends from Toronto, Canada, Bob and Sue Manester, who usually camp one field over from us, make an appearance. “Canada is America’s hat,” I yell out as they approach. I have to say it at least once every year, with the usual eyes rolling response following. All in good fun.

Soon, the Manesters return to their camp and come back with their instruments. Bob picks the guitar and sings while Sue showcases her bluegrass and old time accordion playing. John Taylor brings over his banjo, and Bill Hill grabs his mandolin. The songs played under the candle lit tarps run the gamut from an accordion-powered version of Bill Monroe’s instrumental “Jerusalem Ridge,” to a vocal take on “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight.” Old standards are broken out, such as “Riding On That New River Train” and “Mind Your Own Business,” as well as a rollicking version of Pete Wernick’s “Armadillo Breakdown.”

About 3am or so, the sound of the rain starts to get louder on the tarps. Bob and Sue decide to make a break for it and call it a night, getting their instruments back to their camp before the wet weather gets out of hand. With the hypnotic sounds of the rain as a backdrop, Taylor grabs a guitar and sings a beautiful song called “Blue Moon,” written by the late Australian songwriter John Wythes.

Taylor says this about the author of this inspired tune; “The writer of that song, John Wythes, had Parkinsons disease and suffered other illnesses. He wrote hundreds of songs, all are masterpieces of the art of sparse but vivid imagery. I lost touch with him in 2005 and I was recently told that, not wanting to be a burden on anyone, he tidied up his studio, catalogued his songs, quietly went out to a back paddock and took his own life."

Around 4:30 in the morning we call it a night. Once in my tent and on my cot, which is a good foot off of the wet ground, I am hoping for a light rain to enhance my slumber.
Friday morning arrives sooner than later, considering the lack of sleep. But, it is time to regroup and hit the festival hard. With ten stages and hundreds of musicians on the bill, there is a lot of music to choose from. In fact, it is an embarrassment of riches, and the amount of music offered requires a plan of some sort. The way I handle it is a combination of perusing the stage guide to mark the acts that I view as ‘can’t miss,’ and taking the time to wander around and catch some acts that are new to me. It is Friday, early afternoon, and the rain is gone. Here we go.

The ride from the campground on the shuttle bus, provided by the local boy scouts organization, soon brings me to the crowded festival grounds that are buzzing with activity. The young guns of Americana, bluegrass, and world music are well-represented on the Friday afternoon schedule. The lineup features bands such as Uncle Earl, Crooked Still, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, the Circuit Riders, Toubab Krewe, the Red Stick Ramblers, and the Infamous Stringdusters, bands that are either on the verge or are furthering the buzz already created by their music.
There are also the established bands on the bill today, such as the Tony Rice-Peter Rowan Quartet, Blue Highway, and the Waybacks. And, as with every Merlefest, there are plenty of workshops where the professional musicians take the time to show the learning musicians how to play better. Guitarist Pat Flynn is hosting the guitar workshop, Warren Hood, Jessica Lovell, and Benton Flippen host the fiddle workshop, Buddy Greene is teaching country harmonica, and Pete ‘Dr. Banjo’ Wernick and his wife Joan are hosting a session on jamming etiquette, all designed to encourage the greater family of every day musicians.


Jim Lauderdale performing on the Cabin Stage

One of the main attractions of Friday afternoon is the 4:15pm jam of second generation bluegrass and newgrass superstars on the Watson Stage, the largest of the ten stages. Performances like this are what make Merlefest special. In this jam, newgrass legends Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Byron House and Tony Rice get together with a couple of younger ace players, Bryan Sutton and Luke Bulla. The level of musicianship is amazing as they step into tunes such as the Fleck-penned instrumental “Slipstream,” a number from his influential album from the 1980’s called “Drive.”

Other musical highlights on Friday include the sounds of the soulful Robinella, the sultry vocals of Laura Boosinger, the younger generation of bluegrassers represented by the Steep Canyon Rangers, and the top bluegrass band Blue Highway. The Jerry Douglas Band return a year after its new lineup was revealed at the 2006 Merlefest, and they prove to be progressive and cohesive. With one of the most lauded musicians in the world at the helm, Douglas and his band combine beautiful and eclectic sounds with challenging riffs that thankfully seek to propel the music forward.

As darkness falls, the main stage features the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and an allstar concert by Elvis Costello. Costello starts his set by performing about ten songs by himself, half of which were impressive and wonderful, with the other half bordering on the excessive. The audience knows that other musicians are billed to join him, so they get a little antsy waiting for the stage to fill up a little more. Finally, Costello collaborator, multi-instrumentalist Larry Campbell, walks out to add to the sounds. Campbell is a fine musician who seems as if he could play whatever instrument you put in front of him. As the set progresses, Byron House brings out his bass, and Jim Lauderdale shows up to harmonize and sing some songs with Costello.

Layers of sound are built up as each additional musician takes the stage. Jerry Douglas brings out a squareneck Dobro and lap steel, and Sam Bush shoulders his mandolin. The band jams on a spirited version of the Grateful Dead’s “Friend Of The Devil,” and the set ends with the rambunctious and solo-filled classic, “Mystery Train.”
Wrapping the evening up is the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, who have 40 years worth of music to choose from, including many songs from their timeless “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” album.

After a long night of campground music, fellowship, and fun, I wake up and clear the cobwebs, grab a bite to eat, and hit the shuttle busses again to take in a new day’s music. Saturday is the most crowded of festival days, with the music schedule filled to the brim. My first stop is the Creekside Stage where I take in the mandolin workshop. Onstage is Ronnie McCoury of the Del McCoury Band, the ever-present Peter Rowan, Dan Tyminski of Alison Krauss and Union Station fame, James Nash of the Waybacks, long time bluegrass great Tony Williamson, 16-year old prodigy Sierra Hull, New Grass Revival founder Sam Bush, and about five other pickers - you get the picture. At what rock concert or festival do you find the best rock musicians hosting a workshop where they show the fans how to play better and take questions about playing their respective instruments? It doesn't happen.

From then on, the day becomes a smorgasbord of sounds as I walk from stage to stage, taking in the music that is swirling everywhere. In the late afternoon I find myself off to the side of the smaller Austin Stage, located up on a hillside, where the blues musicians are booked, watching the legendary John Hammond play a solo set with a steel guitar, a harmonica braced around his neck, and his trademark powerful vocals. Although Hammond has known Doc Watson for 40 years, this is his first time playing at Merlefest.

Hammond’s set runs the gamut from Son House songs to a slide guitar-fueled Tampa Red number. Merlefest audiences are an informed and sophisticated lot, and polite as well. But, now and again, magic happens, and today that magic belongs to John Hammond. As he closes his powerful set, a spontaneous and electrifying standing ovation is directed his way, and it seems to surprise him. Hammond’s time is up, and another performer is waiting to go onstage. But, the emcee sees what is happening, senses the uniqueness of this musical connection, and allows Hammond one more tune. It becomes one of those anticipated Merlefest moments.


John Hammond rocking the Merlefest crowd

Saturday also features the best in contemporary bluegrass music, with sets by Blue Highway and the Del McCoury Band, both International Bluegrass Music Association (IBMA) winners many times over, showing how powerful and original the music is in this new century. The Del McCoury Band play a few cuts from their latest gospel bluegrass album, including their new guitar-driven classic, “Five Flat Rocks.”
The main event in the late afternoon is the official 20th anniversary Merlefest jam, and the crowds show up in large numbers to take in this musical celebration. It starts with the appearance of festival host Doc Watson and Sam Bush. One by one, different stellar musicians make their way onto the stage to add to the music, such as Del McCoury, Ronnie McCoury, Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Bryan Sutton, John McEuen, David Holt, country star Pam Tillis, and none other than John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin.

Pat Flynn, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, and Sam Bush, who played together as the influential New Grass Revival back in the day, rejoin to rip up a steamroll version of Townes Van Zandt’s “White Freight Liner.” They also let fly on Fleck’s classic instrumental workout called "Whitewater." Peter Rowan, John Cowan, Pam Tillis, and Del McCoury sing some Bill Monroe songs to give the Father Of Bluegrass his due. As the jam closes, who would have thought that you would ever see Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson, both legends in their 80's, on the same stage with Led Zeppelin's John Paul Jones playing "Workingman's Blues?"

The fact is, this is John Paul Jones’ second Merlefest. Three years ago he came to the festival and ended up meeting the members of the band Uncle Earl at a jam. Now, three years later, Jones has produced the wonderful new album by Uncle Earl called “Waterloo, Tennessee.” He has shown up on multiple stages at this year’s festival, playing about five songs with Uncle Earl the day before, and joining the Canadian band The Duhks on a rowdy version of Led Zeppelin’s “Whole Lotta Love.”
But, perhaps the most interesting jam featured John Paul Jones playing the acoustic upright bass with Uncle Earl member Rayna Gellert during her a solo set on the Cabin Stage. They performance ended with a wild combination of an old time fiddle tune called “John Brown's Dream” mixed with a West African song from Mali called “Kaira.” This esoteric song is funky yet has an almost motherland reggae groove to it. Sweet sounds.

Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones plays bass with Rayna Gellert and Friends on the Cabin Stage

As darkness falls on Saturday, the focus is on the upcoming headliners, the wonderful combination of guitar great Tony Rice joined by Alison Krauss and Union Station featuring Jerry Douglas. Leading up to the performance is the yearly set by the Sam Bush Band, which is always fun. As it gets closer to show time, the seats fill up in front of the Watson Stage, the gear is set up, and the long-awaited collaboration begins.
The members of Union Station, Krauss, Douglas, Dan Tyminski, Barry Bales, and Ron Block, have all been long time fans of Tony Rice, as has anyone who has listened to his music over the years. Rice first stepped into the bigger spotlight when he was a part of the JD Crowe and the New South band from the mid-1970’s that featured a group of up and coming musicians including Rice, Jerry Douglas, and Ricky Skaggs. Rice’s later work with the David Grisman Quintet furthered his reputation as a premier guitarist, and his solo albums, such as the much-heralded “Manzanita,” also highlighted his vocal skills.

As the years progressed, unfortunately, Rice lost his singing voice entirely. Enter Alison Krauss. It was Alison’s idea to put together this combination of Union Station with Rice, and she was glad to sing the vocals to his many classic songs. The cool night air is crisp, the sky is clear, with a bright moon rising above and behind the Watson Stage. The atmosphere fits the music.

Union Station is as professional and talented a band as there is in the business. So, when they start into a few of Rice’s songs, it is soon obvious that the quality of the music will live up to the billing. The Rice classics played include “Shadows,” “Early Morning Rain,” “Four Strong Winds,” and “I Think It’s Going To Rain Today.” The lead vocals are traded between Krauss and Tyminski, with Tyminski dueting with Rice on guitar on a wonderful version of “Church Street Blues.”

There are times, as I listen, when it is frustrating that it is Krauss that has to sing certain songs. I love her distinctive voice, and she sounds wonderful as she brings these tunes to life. But, Rice’s voice is so connected with songs like “Ginseng Sullivan" that when you hear these new versions, you realize how much you miss his vocal abilities. Still, when Alison sings “Streets Of London,” it is nothing short of moving. Incredible. And then - magic.

In the middle of the show, Tony Rice comes out to play his always-anticipated solo number. This time around, Rice chooses the Gershwin classic “Summertime.” As he mesmerizes the audience with his fret work, out comes Jerry Douglas with his squareneck Dobro to add another layer to the music. As the sounds of this duet pours out of the speakers into the North Carolina air, as if on cue, a bright green meteor appears above and to the right of the stage, slowly leaving a long glowing trail behind it. Those up close to the stage do not see the meteor, nor do the performers. But, you can hear about a fourth of the crowd clap and cheer for this spontaneous light show as the shooting star breaks up into many flaming pieces as it disappears behind the trees. “Summertime” was one of the late Merle Watson’s favorite songs. It makes you wonder.
Saturday night leads to more campground jams, stories told, and new friends met. When I last see my friend Sue Manester, she is one field over jamming away on her accordion with about 15 other musicians, including one playing a washtub bass. I lose all sense of time and, sooner than expected, the early morning birds start to chirp. For the first time during the festival, I stay up long enough to see the first light of dawn. Time to get some sleep.

Sunday finds the crowds a little smaller, with many choosing to pack up and make the drive home. Others decide to pack up first, and then head to the festival to take in some music before heading down the road. The mood of the day is relaxed and fun. For those that have been at the festival the four days, their heads are already filled with music, yet there are more sweet sounds to take in as the afternoon progresses.
There are some legendary artists on the bill on this last day of Merlefest. Bluegrass greats such as Doyle Lawson and Quicksilver, Laurie Lewis and the Right Hands, Jim Lauderdale backed up by the Infamous Stringdusters, and the first generation legend Earl Scruggs and Friends perform for the tired yet appreciative crowds.

Earl Scruggs is in his mid-80’s now, about the same age as Doc Watson. Here is a guy who literally revolutionized an instrument when he joined Bill Monroe's band in 1945 and showcased his three-finger style of playing the banjo. The set is a good one by Scruggs and his band, fronted as always by his son Gary who plays bass and hosts the performance. Scruggs does it right by purposely surrounding himself with great players. Today’s band includes electric guitar and mandolin all-star Brad Davis, Bryan Sutton on lead guitar, the Grand Ole Opry's long time fiddle player Hoot Hester, John Gardner on drums, and Jennifer Kennedy Meredith on the squareneck dobro.

I've known Jennifer since she was a teenage phenom who would play on the Young Pickers Stage at the IBMA Week convention back when it was still held in Louisville, Kentucky. Now, she is in her early 20's, is married now, and finds herself playing with an absolute music legend. The squareneck Dobro is a unique instrument, and Earl has had one in his band going back to when Uncle Josh Graves played the squareneck with Flatt and Scruggs in the 1950's.

As I look back over the past four days, one of the true highlights of Merlefest 2007 was the Carolina Chocolate Drops. This group of young African American musicians are trying to recapture the tradition of Black string bands that existed in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. The banjo is, after all, an African instrument. The members of the group include Rhiannon Giddens, Justin Robinson, and Dom Flemons. Giddens and Robinson are from North Carolina. Flemons is from Arizona and met the other two at the Black Banjo Gathering event of a few years ago. Joining the band for the weekend is fellow musician Sule Wilson.

The Drops have been playing for three days here at Merlefest, and have increased their following with every performance. They have played on various stages, and even busked in front of the No Depression Magazine tent in the springtime sun. The great thing about the Drops is that they are no novelty act, looking to use a musical hook to get folks’ attention. They take their string music seriously. Any old time string band worth its salt will have a mentor from the old days that they have learned at the feet of, and for the Carolina Chocolate Drops, that mentor is 89-year old Black fiddler Joe Thompson.

Before this resurgence in interest in the African American string band tradition, North Carolina native Joe Thompson was one of the few who were carrying on the history of this style. Because of this, my favorite performance by the Drops is when they played with Thompson and music historian and banjo player Bob Carlin in the Traditional Tent. The open-air tent was packed with music lovers, and Carlin and the members of the Drops took turns talking with Thompson about the history of the music. They also played many fiddle tunes together, including some that go back a century or more. With the Carolina Chocolate Drops captivating audiences everywhere they go, Joe Thompson’s legacy is in good hands.


The Carolina Chocolate Drops perform at Merlefest

Merlefest 2008 – April 24-27
Catch A Legend While You Can

Doc Watson, then, cannot be ordinary. But when asked, some hours before performing here on a Friday night earlier this month, whether this is indeed his last ride, he gave a deep sigh. He locked his blind eyes on his questioner and said finally, quietly, "I haven't the faintest idea. But I'll have to sooner or later, because my hands can't do this much longer. I can't play like I could 30 or 40 years ago. The speed's not there and the clarity's not there. My reflexes are slowing down, and there's not a thing I can do about it."
From an interview with Doc Watson in the Washington Post in January of 2008

It is clear from the Doc Watson quote above that age is catching up to this music legend. He is 85 years old now, and a lot of notes have poured out of this man over a lot of years. But, Doc is still playing amazing music, and this upcoming Merlefest will feature many opportunities to hear this American music legend in case you haven’t done so before. In other words, here is your chance.

The Merlefest 2008 music schedule has been released, and the lineup is a great one. The acts performing over the four-day festival will include;
Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby with Kentucky Thunder, Levon Helm and The Midnight Ramble on the Road with Special Guests, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan,
Jorma Kaukonen, The Avett Brothers, Abigail Washburn and The Sparrow Quartet featuring Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, Ben Sollee, the Sam Bush Band, The Carolina Chocolate Drops, Joe Thomspon, the Jerry Douglas Band, Tim O’Brien, The Waifs, The Waybacks, Old Crow Medicine Show, the Irish-American supergroup Solas reunion with Karan Casey and John Doyle, Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives, Dan Tyminski Band, Alison Brown Quartet with Joe Craven, Donna The Buffalo, Blue Highway, The Claire Lynch Band, Dirk Powell and Riley Baugus, Ollabelle, Sally Van Meter, Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, Pete Wernick and Flexigrass, Bearfoot, The John Cowan Band, David Holt, The Infamous Stringdusters, The Wilders, Laurie Lewis and The Right Hands, T. Michael Coleman, The Lovell Sisters, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Tift Merritt, Sierra Hull and Highway 111, Happy Traum, Jim Lauderdale, Laura Boosinger, Bob Carlin and Cheick Hamala Diabate, and Jack Lawrence.

MerleFest 2008 will also feature performances by Ruthie Foster, Susana & Timmy Abell, Tom Ball and Kenny Sultan, the Banknotes, The Captain’s Crew, Carl & Kelli Jones, The Circuit Riders, Robert Dotson, Mike Dowling, Future Traditions, Terry Garland, Buddy Greene, Mitch Greenhill, George Hamilton IV and George Hamilton V, Bob Hill, Hot Buttered Rum, Clint Howard Band, The InterACTive Theater of Jeff, Phil Jamison, The Key City Boys, Mark Lippard, Jeff Little, The Local Boys, Bill Mathis, Cliff Miller, Paul Oscher, The Pine Leaf Boys, Polecat Creek, Tom Sauber, Shana Banana, ShoeFly, Ryan Shupe and The RubberBand, Joe Smothers, Rafe Stefanini and Clelia Stefanini, Rodney Sutton, Tish Hinojosa, Tut Taylor, Bill VornDick, Charles Welch, Whitetop Mountain Band, Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society, The Alberti Flea Circus, Buffalo Barfield, Willette Hinton and Family, and Tony Williamson.

As always, from the Little Pickers Stage to the Alberti Flea Circus to the many games and arts and crafts provided, this is a family friendly festival. And, for the shoppers out there, rows and rows of arts and crafts tents to choose from.

Another highlight of the upcoming festival will be the musical collaborations, a hallmark of this event. For instance, on Friday the Wilders will jam with Jim Lauderdale and Andy Hall on the Watson Stage, followed by another jam featuring the Waybacks performing with John Cowan and Dobro great Sally van Meter. As the day progresses, Tony Rice will play with the John Cowan Band, the Infamous Stringdusters will play with Tim O’Brien, and Peter Rowan will collaborate with Sam Bush and Tish Hinojosa.
On Saturday, the collaborations will include a ‘New Generation Jam” featuring Sierra Hull and Highway 111 along with Bearfoot and the Lovell Sisters, a ‘Hillside Jam’ featuring Donna The Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale, Scott vestal, and Tim O’Brien, and a get-together on the Watson Stage that will feature Jorma Kaukonen, Tony Rice, Sam Bush, Sally Van Meter, Byron House, and Barry Mitteroff.

There will be a ‘Mando Mania’ jam featuring virtually every mandolin player on the grounds. Saturday will also find the Nashville Bluegrass Band joined by Peter Rowan, and the Waybacks will host their yearly multi-performer session on the Hillside Stage. Finally, in what should be a lot of fun, the ‘Girls For Merle’ jam will feature bluegrass stars Claire Lynch, Rhonda Vincent, Alison Brown, Sierra Hull, Sally Van Meter, and Missy Raines.

The festivals workshops and open jams will be better than ever this year. For instance, on Friday afternoon in the Hands On Tent, Jorma Kaukonen and Barry Mitteroff of Hot Tuna will host a ‘Pickin’ With The Fans’ jam along with Sally Van Meter. Where else is that kind of interaction going to happen? Many other known musicians will also host open jams, including Tut Taylor, Pete Wernick, and others.

On the Workshop Stage, many of the festival’s top performers will give instructional sessions on all instruments. For those of you that are already accomplished musicians, the yearly songwriting and musical instrument competitions will be in full force as well.
Another favorite gathering area at the festival is the ever-boisterous Dance Tent where folks are encouraged to kick up their heels. Fueling the dancing this year will be musicians such as The Wilders, the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Tim O’Brien, Riley Baugus, Dirk Powell, Tom Sauber, Donna The Buffalo, and Peter Rowan.
Throughout this amazing event, there is the heart and soul of the festival- Doc Watson. Although he is 85 years old, Doc is scheduled to perform at least 10 times over the four days. He is the real deal, a musician for the ages, and his performances can be nothing short of powerful.


John Taylor and son William came from Canberra, Australia to visit Merlefest

On the last day of Merlefest 2007, I am sitting in some chairs in front of the Watson and Cabin Stages, talking to my friends Bob and Sue Manester. While Earl Scruggs and Friends are performing, the press photographers are scrambling to take some pictures of something off to the side of the stage. I look over and there is Doc Watson, rocking back and forth in his chair, taking a break to sit and listen to his long time friend Earl do his set. Because of their ages, it is moving to see these two together, with the music that brought them together all of those years ago still relevant, still sounding sweet.
As our conversation continues, Bob tells Sue and I about the moving performance by Doc that he witnessed earlier in the day, a performance that will be the buzz of the festival as the days and months go by. He describes it as one of the most emotional moments in music that he has ever experienced. He was sitting no more than four feet from the Creekside Stage, and when Doc almost loses it during a song, the rest of the audience almost does as well. Here is what happened.

On Sunday mornings, it is a tradition for Doc Watson to do a gospel set with the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Known as one of the best bands in the business, the NBB consists of Stuart Duncan on fiddle, Mike Compton on mandolin, Alan O’Bryant on banjo, Pat Enright on guitar, and Andy Todd on bass.

“Now, it is about time that the NBB sing another good harmony note or two on some kind of pretty song,” says Doc. The Nashville Bluegrass Band then launch into an a cappella spiritual called, “Hush, Somebody’s Calling Out My Name.” After the number is over, Doc takes the microphone again.

“I got a special request to do one of the old Christian harmony songs, Alan, called ‘Wondrous Love,’” Doc tells the band, calling an audible. “You don’t have to worry about playing. Let me do this one alone, and then I won’t mess you up. No offense meant now (laughing). ”

Doc is strumming his guitar, preparing for this solo number. “These boys have probably never played this. I bet you haven’t ever played this, have you?” says Doc. “It’s all minor, mostly.”

“I don’t think we have. But, this is shape note (singing), and we did it with those Blue Highway boys,” says O’Bryant.

“Yeah, I don’t do it in the shape notes,” says Doc, as his guitar starts to form the basis of the song, and then he begins – “What wondrous love is this, Oh, my soul.”
As Doc sings and plays this gospel number, it is soon obvious that he has given himself up to the music, and has put his heart and soul into this song. The lyrics are bringing emotion out of him, and the audience can see it and feel it. Doc continues singing;
“What wondrous love is this, That caused the Lord of bliss, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul, for my soul, To bear the dreadful curse for my soul!”

Then, as Doc sings the next verse, his voice cracks, and a heartfelt part of this old man’s life has been brought to the surface.

“When I was sinking down, sinking down, sinking down, When in despair, I was sinking down, When I was sinking down, Beneath God’s righteous frown, Christ laid aside His crown for my soul for my soul.”

Even though it is an outdoor stage, with a large crowd surrounding it, you can hear a pin drop. It seems as if Doc senses that his emotion has affected the crowd, and towards the end of the song he strums the guitar a little harder, speeds up the tempo a bit, and finishes strong.

The whole time, the NBB have been on the stage surrounding Doc, enthralled with the performance as much as the audience is, only able to see it play out right there in front of them. “Doc, anytime that you want us to come over to the house and stand around with our instruments and listen to you do that, we’d just be perfectly happy to do that,” says Stuart Duncan, acknowledging this musical moment. “It’s just wonderful.”
Then, Doc decides to tell the rest of the story, to let the audience know why this song means so much to him.

“I’ve got a little story about my past life, and all these years, that I’d love to tell,” says Doc. “I’ll condense it as much as I can. In 1966, I almost died. I was on the five percent list for about ten days. When they realized that I probably wouldn’t live, they moved me to an isolated ward. And, that day, I almost went. We’ll say, (showing the audience) this is the line between the world, here, and eternity, here, and I was in the middle there lying in the presence of the All Mighty. I said, ‘Lord, I know I’m going to die. I know it as good as I’m lying here. I’ve not been a Christian like I thought I was. All of these years up ‘til now, I’ve missed the way. Forgive me of my sins if I must die. But, if it is your will, I’d like to live and support my family.’ And, the load was lifted. I got a 40 year extension.”
The crowd, of course, applauds and cheers the part where Doc says he has received a 40-year extension. But, Doc doesn’t want that to be the punch line of his testimony, and he isn’t shy about letting the audience know it.

“Now, wait a minute. Wait a minute,” Doc says to the crowd. “That’s not the place to quit. Wait a minute. If they don’t want me to get serious, I’ll quit right here. A fella came out with a song called ‘Doctor Jesus’ about five-six years ago. I was sitting there and in His presence all at once, I needed that doctor for my soul and my heart, and that door opened, and I know what the word ‘Christian’ meant, and I know now that was my 40 year extension. It wasn’t some kind of fun thing, it was real. Thank you. Now, you all play a goodin’ and make us all happy.”

“Well let’s see,” says O’Bryant, as the audience claps and cheers. “I don’t know. About the happiest thing we got is to get Mike Compton around here and sing a little bit of the ‘Gospel Plow.’” Compton then kicks in the powerful mandolin beginning to this upbeat gospel classic, Duncan’s fiddle chimes in, the rest of the band joins in, and the crowd starts clapping to the beat. In the hills of North Carolina, there is yet another spontaneous and memorable Merlefest moment.

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