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The World Comes Out To Merlefest


By Derek Halsey
June 2004

Merlefest Music Festival
April 29-May 2, 2004

I am sitting in a school bus. It is not your normal bus, but a short yellow school bus that has a bunk bed in the back, and a row of cabinets and counter space along one side of it. My uncle, Wayne Wormy Smith, is known for finding good deals and interesting objects at flea markets. He found this early-1980s converted school bus camper at a flea market for $1,500, and this is its maiden voyage as we drive it through the mountains of West Virginia, Virginia, and North Carolina. Uncle Wormy, my brother Doug and I are headed to the Merlefest music festival in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina. 

So far the old bus is holding up, although it barely moves faster than 50 miles per hour on the steep mountain grades. As Wormy steers the bus from his cushy green drivers seat up front, my brother and I are regulated to sitting in a couple of run of the mill white plastic lawn chairs in the back. We pull out of a gas station in Wytheville, Virginia and Wormy guns it a little. I am caught off guard and immediately thrown back in my plastic white chair and find myself teetering on one leg, trying to regain my balance. I hover on that one leg long enough to hear it snap off at the top, and send me crashing down to the floor of the bus. The first story of the road trip is in the books.

Merlefest is simply one of the best music festivals in the country. Held at the end of April, it is a great way to start off the spring of the year. It is hosted by the legendary North Carolina musician Doc Watson, and the event is named after his son, Merle. Merle Watson was an excellent musician in his own right until his untimely death in a tractor accident in 1986. We are pulling into the camping area on what is the first day of the festival, Thursday. I am to meet some friends here that have come a long way; Bob and Sue Manester are driving in from Toronto, Canada, and John Taylor and his family are flying in from Canberra, the capital city of Australia. 

We set up camp and start to walk to yet another school bus. The campground is located on the old airport land a few miles from the festival grounds and the local Cub Scouts, their fathers and uncles and such, are providing bus shuttles to and from the festival. Right off the bat we find the Manesters making camp. We ask them to join us, but Bob and Sue are worn out from 12 hours of driving so we decide to catch up with them later.

Thursday is a light day for the festival, as only five of the ten stages are in use. But the lineup is, as always, exceptional. As we get there the group Pine Mountain Railroad is on the main stage, called the Watson stage, and they are throwing down some great traditional bluegrass music. Beside the Watson stage is the Cabin stage, which is a rebuilt log cabin just off to the side where smaller acoustic acts perform while the other bands set up on the main stage. After Pine Mountain Railroad is finished the bluegrass and Celtic troubadour, Tim O’Brien, entertains the crowd with his wonderful and original tunes. The sky is cloudy and the air is cool, but folks are in a good mood knowing that they have four days of good times and great music ahead of them. 

One of the best Dobro players in the world, Jerry Douglas, is about to play on the Watson stage. But before he does I meet up with a few friends of mine that I have met from perusing the Jerry Douglas website. Although I don’t play the Dobro, I find that those that do play the instrument are a knowledgeable bunch. The Dobro used to be known as the black sheep instrument of bluegrass music, but due to players like Douglas, Rob Ickes, and Mike Auldridge it has gained in popularity. Jerry’s main gig is playing with Alison Krauss and Union Station. But tonight he is here with his solo band, an outfit that lets him explore the more improvisational side of his music. Playing songs from his solo album, Lookout For Hope, and other gems from past efforts, Douglas and his band show why they are some of the best in the business. It is only the first of several concerts that Douglas will perform during the weekend.  

Following the Jerry Douglas Band is the man himself, Doc Watson. Playing with Jack Lawrence, T. Michael Coleman and Bill Mathis, Doc plays and sings some of the songs that he made famous with his son Merle. What a pleasure it is to hear Doc sing, and to hear him flatpick that guitar of his. At 81-years old he still gets it done. Performing after Mr. Watson on the Cabin stage are the Kruger Brothers. These natives of Switzerland, Jens on banjo and Ewe on guitar, are now playing in their new adopted home state of North Carolina. They recently made the big move to live here year round to further their careers and make it in America. Along with their bass player Joel Landsberg, a New York City native who met the Krugers while playing in Switzerland, they are exceptional pickers who will do just fine in the years to come.

Backstage I run into some friends and we catch up with each other a man with a decidedly Aussie accent approaches me and asks if I might be “Derek Halsey.” Sure enough, it is John Taylor. Although we have corresponded for years, we have never met in person. “You’re the fifth ‘Derek Halsey’ that I have introduced myself to tonight. Finally I get it right,” says John, relieved that we have hooked up. We get to know each other quickly as we listen to the Derailers play their rockabilly on the Watson stage. We watch the great Bela Fleck perform on the Cabin stage before deciding to head back to the campground. 

John Taylor is a bluegrass banjo player….from Australia. You could fit the Aussie bluegrass scene in a phone booth, at least that is what I am thinking, and I am wondering if he can pick very good. It is obvious from the first notes that he plays on his banjo that he is the real deal, and can pick circles around me. My provincial thinking is promptly thrown out the window. We gather around a campfire where we find our Canadian friends jamming with some folks that they met earlier in the day. 

As everybody is introduced to each other a local North Carolina man notices John’s Aussie accent. Soon he is asking John about the song “Waltzing Matilda,” the unofficial Australian national anthem. Most folks only know the familiar chorus, but the song has at least five very poignant verses of lyrics that tell a tale of a man going to war. The local man had heard it years before, and wondered of John knew all the verses. John promptly borrows a guitar and sings the whole song to him. He thanks John for the effort several times. It has made his night. Then a bass player wanders in from the dark carrying a big old doghouse and he offers up a swig of snuck in moonshine that one of his kin has brewed up. Compliments are passed on to the chef, as it is well-made firewater. Songs are traded, friendships are made, camps are set up, it is time to relax and have fun.

As I sit in a chair listening to the music I look over towards the fire and there is someone standing there that looks vaguely familiar. “Is your name Pete?” I ask. “Yes,” he says with a bewildered look on his face. I get up and walk over and sure enough it is Pete Marshall of the band Mando Mafia. I met him at the Appalachian String Band festival last summer, and he has driven down from Charlottesville, Virginia by himself to Merlefest. I introduce him to my brother Doug and remind him that we were listening to a Mando Mafia CD on the trip down. Pete is standing there with his left arm in a sling and his thumb is sticking out with a bulbous cartoon-like bandage wrapped around it. Unfortunately, earlier in the day Pete was working with a nail gun and proceeded to send a nail completely through his thumb. The good news is that he somehow missed the bone. Nevertheless, there will be no playing of his octave mandolin tonight. Bummer.

Friday morning finds Uncle Wormy cutting up the fixin’s for his world famous vegetarian camp soup. He is not a vegetarian, but makes this hearty soup up that way so all can partake. Friday is when all ten of the festival stages are fired up, and it is when you start to run into the ‘Merlefest dilemma.’ There are so many great acts scheduled throughout the day, but a lot of them are scheduled at the same time at opposite ends of the festival grounds. Some folks choose to plant themselves in front of one stage and stay there all day long. Others like myself tend to constantly read the music schedule and walk from stage to stage and see as much as I can. For instance, at the same time on Friday afternoon there is Doc Watson, Gillian Welch, Pine Mountain Railroad, Mike Marshall, Laura Boosinger, and Tony Rice all playing on different stages. The good news is that the performers at Merlefest are asked to play many different times and days, so you can usually catch up with an act at a later time. 

One thing that you notice right off is that Merlefest is a picker friendly event. Folks are encouraged to bring their instruments to the festival and to pick together. Tut Taylor, known as the King Of the Flatpick Dobro and who played with John Hartford and many others, hosts an open stage jam for any and all comers. There are also showcases where the best in the business teach you how to improve your guitar, banjo, fiddle, bass, mandolin, or Dobro playing. They answer your questions, and show you various techniques on the instruments right in front of you. This is an excellent way to further the legacy of the music along. 

Walk up on the Watson stage area and Jerry Douglas is finishing up yet another set, this time with the musicians that he made the great Skip, Hop and Wobble album with, Russ Barenburg and Edgar Meyer. It is eclectic acoustic music at its best. Next up on the Watson stage is the Tony Rice Unit. These guys are excellent musicians in their own right, with Ricky Simpkins on fiddle, Wyatt Rice on guitar, and Ronnie Simpkins on bass. But add one of the great guitarist of our time, Tony Rice, to the mix and you have a jam that brings out many of the other headline acts to see what Tony comes up with. And, add to that special guest Rob Ickes on Dobro and you have one of the best performances of the festival. Tony and the boys do not disappoint, as they play a jazzy and atmospheric “Wayfaring Stranger” that has the crowd captivated. But, another Merlefest decision looms. After a half hour or so I decide to  make the trek across the grounds to see what should be a great set of music.

On what is called the Hillside stage, many of the headliners who are here with their own bands have come together for a special performance. I can hear the crowd roaring up ahead as Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Peter Rowan, Bryn Bright, and Gabe Witcher have already started their get-together. As the set progresses the brilliant fiddler Darol Anger pops in from the side of the stage and adds to the fun. Although known for being in the group Old And In The Way as well as his own many bands, Peter Rowan also came up playing with Bill Monroe. As a tribute to the Father of Bluegrass, Peter sings the classic “Footprints In The Snow.” When it is Jerry Douglas’ turn to play one he chooses “Foggy Mountain Rock,” a song that his hero Josh Graves would play on Dobro with Flatt and Scruggs back in the day. They end their all too brief set by jumping into high gear with Bela Fleck’s workout, “Whitewater.” The large and loud crowd barely lets them off the stage, but there are many acts yet to go. 

Mark O’Connor is a very accomplished and world-renowned fiddle player. He started out winning fiddle contest as a youngster of only 11 years old. He has recorded music as diverse as bluegrass, old-time, rock, Texas swing, and classical. He studied with the great Texas fiddler Benny Thomason, as well as the French jazz legend Stephane Grappelli. He has played with musicians from classical cellist Yo Yo Ma to Doc Watson. This afternoon he is playing with his Hot Swing Trio. One of his many projects, this band features Jon Burr on bass, who played with Grappelli for over a decade, and Frank Vignola on guitar. They proceed to tear it up, and their showmanship and musicianship win them standing ovation after standing ovation. They end the set with a swinging “Limehouse Blues,” a song that Grappelli played with the great Django Reinhardt over 60 years ago. What a treat, the crowd loves it.

I then walk to the Creekside stage, the most secluded and beautiful of the ten stages. The legendary Hot Tuna is about to start their acoustic set. I have not seen Jorma Koukanen and Jack Casady in years, as they were a part of the Jefferson Airplane back in the hippie days. I get to talk with the both of them for a minute and I find out that it is Jack’s first Merlefest. Jorma has been here before, and we talk about his Fur Peace Ranch musician’s camp that he has set up in southeastern Ohio. Even though I also reside in Ohio, I have yet to go there. There is a big crowd here who know exactly who these guys are, and with their partner Barry Mitterhoff on mandolin, the trio sounds wonderful on this cool spring afternoon. They pick off tunes such as “Keep Your Lamps Trimmed And Burning” and “Blue Railroad Train.” 

I run into Uncle Wormy and Doug and we all decide to head back to camp a little early and eat some supper. We board the familiar school bus and get off and walk the quarter mile or so to our encampment. Bill Hill, a fellow festival dog from the New River Gorge area of Fayetteville, West Virginia, has found us and pitched his camp nearby. He is a schoolteacher, and also a heck of a mandolin and guitar picker. Uncle Wormy fires up the gas stove and heats up his camp soup as folks start to gather. As we sit to eat and regroup we turn on the local FM radio station that is broadcasting the festival as it happens. Sam Bush takes the stage with his band and is jamming hard. When he is done Casey Driessen and Luke Bulla do a fiddle duet on the Cabin Stage. After the third song Casey stops and asks his girlfriend, Molly Nagel who works for Sugar Hill Records, to come up to the stage. I’ll let Molly tell the rest of the story; 

“At the end of his set with Luke Bulla on the Cabin stage, right before Peter Rowan, he said he’d like to dedicate the last song to me, and would I come down front. So I went down front, and he took off his overshirt, and he had on a t-shirt underneath that said, ‘Molly, will you marry me.’ At that point I jumped up on stage and acted like an idiot. Then, I got down off the stage and he played and sang ‘Handsome Molly’ for me.”

It is springtime in the North Carolina mountains, and as corny as it sounds, love really is in the air. 

All of our friends that have a musical instrument show up at our camp and prepare to jam. Peter Rowan is on the radio with his Crucial Reggae band, and he has the Burning Spears Horns playing with him as special guests. The reggae is smooth and sweet, but folks want to play, so I turn down the sound and push the tape player’s ‘record’ button. Besides, I will see Peter’s band play tomorrow. There is a guy camped next to us that has come over to say howdy and listen to the music. His wife and kids aren’t into the festival scene or camping so he has come by himself to get his festival fix. We keep exhorting him to try Uncle Wormy’s famous camp soup, and he relents. “Wow,” he says after eating a few spoonfuls late into the night, “I can feel it down in my chest. It’s energizing me.”  We all look at each other and laugh, “Told you.” 

I soon realize that my bluegrass pickin’ ability on guitar is sadly lacking. But, we have John the Aussie on banjo, the Canadians, Bob on guitar and Sue on accordion, and Bill Hill on mandolin. Also joining us is Sue’s brother Nick, on guitar. It is great to meet a guy such as Nick with a blatantly Canadian accent, who then rips into some hard bluegrass lead guitar playing. Wonderful. They play songs like “Sitting On Top Of The World,” and John Hartford’s “Steam Powered Aereo Plane.” The jam lasts way into the early morning hours, to almost 4am. The world has come together for Merlefest, and that’s just at our campsite.   

It is Saturday morning and I feel good, remarkable in light of the very late evening I had the night before. I attribute that to the soup. As we eat some morning grub the local mountain blues legend Etta Baker is on the radio doing a concert with David Holt. Holt is a musician/storyteller that has recorded some important albums with Doc Watson, and has gone out into the mountains to find and interview other musicians like Etta. Born in 1913 in Caldwell County, North Carolina, Etta Baker is as real as it gets. 

Saturday is a big day for music at Merlefest. That is when the biggest crowds show up, and the headliners take the Watson stage in the evening. We get there in the early afternoon and as we circle the Dance tent in our bus on the way to the drop off area, the sounds of sweet reggae is in the air. Peter Rowan is playing with his band, Crucial Reggae, and on this day he has the Burning Spear Horns and fiddler Gabe Witcher there to jam with him. I realize that it has been a very long time since I heard some good reggae live, and I stay and soak up as much as I can. Everyone in the crowd is dancing, and it is a wonderful afternoon vibe. Man, I needed this.

The Dance tent is an amazing thing, and where many of the festival’s biggest acts are asked to provide the best dance music you could ever ask for. Over the weekend such bands as the Old Crow Medicine Show, the Derailers, Donna The Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale, Natalie McMaster, the Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band featuring Michael Doucet, the Gourds, and many others keep it fun and lively. Under this huge and open tent there are contra dance lessons, square dance lessons, clogging lessons and more. If this were happening in the summer heat it would be unbearable, but it is springtime and the temperature, and the fun, is just right.   

Yet another Merlefest dilemma confronts me. Playing at the same time are Hot Tuna on one stage, Mark O’Connor jamming with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek and Bryan Sutton on another stage, the Gourds are playing on the Hillside stage, and Tony Williamson, Tom Rozum, Mike Compton, Sam Bush, and Mike Marshall are putting on a mandolin super jam on the Creekside stage. I just take a deep breath and decide to walk around, relax, and take in all I can. 

Natalie McMaster is a master fiddler from Nova Scotia, Canada. She grew up as part of the Cape Breton fiddle scene, an area that was colonized by Scottish immigrants in the 19th century who brought their music with them. In the New World they created their own tradition of music, which has lasted to this day. Natalie is a ball of energy as she dances jig after jig while playing the fiddle at the same time. The crowd loves her, and rightly so. She is working hard for them. After Natalie is the Nashville Bluegrass Band. These guys are Uncle Wormy’s favorite bluegrass band, and are regulars at Merlefest. Rumor has it that the NBB finally has a new album coming out in the fall, the first one from the band in five years or so. It should be exceptional. 

The story of the band Bering Strait is an inspiring one. These talented young folks are from Obninsk, Russia. They met while studying music at the State College of Music and Stage Arts near Moscow, and they have made the trek to America to live and try and make it. From the response of the crowd at the Creekside stage, I would say they have. Their music is diverse, ranging from electric country and rock to bluegrass-tinged roots music. They take turns playing in different configurations, as one member will play a solo song, another two members of the band come out and jam on another tune, and so on. It is obvious that they take their music serious, and the multitude of music fans loves them.

As the sun starts to go down tens of thousands of people begin to gather in front of the Watson stage. Saturday night is when the headliners play, and the audience swells to at least 35,000 or so.  First up is Patty Loveless, who always has a good band behind her, and she plays a well-received set. As Patty’s band breaks down on the main stage Darol Anger and Mike Marshall do an acoustic duet on the Cabin stage. Their high level of musicianship never fails to inspire music fans and other musicians, and there are many stepping out from backstage to watch them. I run into my brother Doug and he has just come from the Hillside stage. He tells me that the group Nickel Creek rocked, and drew a huge crowd of young folks that knew the words to all their songs and were loudly rooting them on. All in their early 20’s, Nickel Creek has done a lot to bring young folks into the new acoustic music camp.

While walking around backstage I run into Gary Scruggs, one of the nice guys in the business. I haven’t seen him in over two years, yet he says howdy right away and takes me to see his father, Earl. Along with meeting Doc Watson, having a brief chance to talk with a musician of the stature of Earl Scruggs means more to me than all the rest combined. Here is a man who literally transformed a segment of American music, and single-handedly changed the way an instrument is played. The three-finger Scruggs style of banjo pickin’ is a part of American music history. Yet here he is, at 80 years old, still playing onstage and sounding great. Earl has a fine band with him tonight; Gary on bass, Brad Davis, Bryan Sutton, and Jon Randall on guitars, the great Glen Duncan on fiddle, and a young lady named Jennifer Kennedy on Dobro. When Earl and Lester Flatt started the Flatt and Scruggs band they had a legendary Dobro player with them in Josh Graves. Jennifer Kennedy, all of 20 years old, continues the tradition of players like Josh, and does so with a powerful pickin’ ability that the crowd loudly responds to. She is a wonderful player.

As Earl’s set continues a few special guests appear to jam with him. Vince Gill comes out to sing and play mandolin on “Blue Moon Of Kentucky,” and then Doc Watson joins the group for a few classic mountain songs. To see these two musical giants play together right in front of me, and with both of them over 80 years old, it is simply something that I will never forget. Also joining Doc and Earl onstage is Doc’s grandson, Richard Watson, who is Merle’s son, and Bill Mathis.   

After that historic set Gillian Welch and David Rawlings take the Cabin Stage. When they launch into “I Want To Sing That Rock And Roll” the crowd is with them from the first note. By the time the two of them end their five-song set the 35,000 in attendance have given them more than one standing ovation. It is one of those rare moments when two folks armed with nothing but acoustic guitars and wonderful harmonies enthrall an audience. 

Vince Gill is no dummy. Even though he has a huge career in the mainstream country music side of things, he has not forgotten his roots. Yes, he does sing some of his hits, but he has always been a good picker and, backed by a very talented band, he lets it fly. As you would expect, the crowd loves him. His set isn’t too slick, but right on target as he is not afraid to play some country music the way it used to be played back in the day. Between his set and the closers for the night, Donna The Buffalo, Mindy Smith shows the crowd why she is a natural talent and a vocal force to be dealt with in the years to come. She is a pleasure to listen to.

We decide to leave a little early knowing that the lines waiting for the bus will soon grow exponentially. It is the right move as soon we are being dropped off and are back at camp in no time. Last night was the night that everyone got to know each other, and we all stayed around our camp and jammed in one place. Tonight, however, everyone is spread out and walking around trying to find different jams, and there are many going on throughout the campground. The rain, which has been showing up intermittently throughout the weekend, forces folks under the larger tents. But, the jams do not stop, and it is wonderful to see so many young folks playing real bluegrass music. Years ago I wondered if young folks would take up bluegrass and new acoustic music. But these days, due to bands like Bering Strait and Nickel Creek and King Wilkie, the music is as strong as ever.

Merlefest is about more than a bunch of bands playing on a stage. There are many arts and crafts booths, and plenty of good country cooking served up by the good cooks from many of the local churches. It is also a great place to update your CD collection. It is about 5am and Bill Hill is back at camp relaxing when I walk up. He tells me of a CD he bought of an obscure musician named Jimmy Arnold that he found at the County Sales/Rebel Records tent. I tell him about the brand new CD I got earlier in the day by Darol Anger and his American String Ensemble. We decide to listen to some music. 

Bill has an umbrella that is an acoustic wonder. When you hold it up around your head in the rain you can literally here yourself walking, to the point where you think someone is behind you, even though no one is. Because it is almost 6am we take the boom box and put it on a chair and setup the umbrella around it so it becomes an impromptu amphitheater. This way we can keep the volume low, but still get the full affect of the music. Darol’s album, Republic of Strings, sounds wonderful, as it is both beautiful and innovative. With Scott Nygard on guitars, Brittany Haas on fiddle, and Natalie Haas and Rush Eggleston on cellos, the song arrangements are influenced by string music traditions from around the world, from Beirut to Ireland. But they also wield their musical prowess on great new takes of classic songs like Stevie Wonder’s “Higher Ground” and Joni Mitchell’s “Help Me.” About a third of the way through the album the sky starts to brighten in the east. As the album plays out the sky is light and the birds are singing in their predawn way. Dawn has never had a better soundtrack to go with it, and it is a great way to hear a great new album for the very first time.

Sunday finds most of the campers slowly rising to begin the inevitable pack up. Uncle Wormy, my brother Doug, and I have decided to stay another night. Besides, there is one last morning and afternoon of music to take in. Those two get up earlier than I do and take off for the festival grounds. I finally drag myself out of my tent and eat some food and head towards my bus stop. I run into them soon after they get there and they apprise me of what I missed. Joe Thompson and Bob Carlin threw down some old-time music on the Traditional stage, and uncle Wormy’s favorite bluegrass group, the Nashville Bluegrass Band, played an awesome set with Doc Watson. Doug tells me that in Hot Tuna’s last set of the festival, Jack Casady played some awesome bass solos that he did not play before and stepped up big time. 

I walk around and watch the Kruger brothers for a while and then head towards the Watson stage. As I walk I hear a voice behind me calling out my name and it is Fred Jasper, who works for Sugar Hill Records. He is telling me that at a late night jam at their rented cabin a few miles from the festival none other than John Paul Jones of Led Zeppelin showed up with mandolin in tow. I ask him a couple of times if he is sure it was John Paul Jones. He says yes, that Jones was sitting just outside the jam circle and was working on his bluegrass mandolin rhythm chops. We talk for a few minutes more and decide to talk again later. As I wander around yet again the John Cowan Band is on stage when suddenly I hear the strains of the Zeppelin song “Dazed and Confused.” I see that Sam Bush has joined Cowan on stage, but I do not recognize the bass player right off. I soon find out that yes, while not scheduled to be there but playing anyway, it is John Paul Jones. 

David Grisman has been one of the true innovators of bluegrass and new acoustic music since the 1970’s. He was one of the first to mix bluegrass sensibilities with jazz music, and he was also on the fabled Old And In The Way album with Vassar Clements, Peter Rowan, and the now deceased Jerry Garcia. From the very first notes, Grisman and his band prove all over again why their reputation is what it is. Towards the end of his set I walk around to the side of the stage and sure enough, there is John Paul Jones. I introduce myself and I tell him that I heard he was slinging some mandolin at a bluegrass jam a night or two ago. “Yes,” he says with a big smile on his face, “I tried, anyway. These players are amazing. This has really inspired me. I’m having a great time. Wonderful!” As we stand and watch, Grisman calls up almost every mandolin player on the grounds for a big finale. Joining him onstage are Sam Bush, 15-year old Josh Pinkham, Tony Williamson, Mike Marshall, and a few others. They take turns trading solos, one after another. Apparently Sam Bush has been talking with Jones about bluegrass mandolin, because when this monster jam ends he walks off the stage and says to him, “There is about all the mandolin leads you need, brother.” Whew, it is time for everyone to take a breath. What another great day at Merlefest.

I run into John Taylor one last time and he and his wife Morag and son William have packed up and are getting ready to head out. He tells me about a bus trip the night before where the folks onboard talked him into playing banjo on the ride back to the campground. John tells it this way, “On the bus, with banjo in hand, the driver’s offsider (co-pilot) asked for a tune. So, it is two miles back to the site, and I’m trying to get the driver to ‘floor it’ by playing ‘Foggy Mountain Breakdown,’ ‘Turkey in the Straw,’ and other walloping tunes. The bus was packed, and everyone was clapping along or stamping their feet.  For the rest of the festival I was the ‘guy who played the banjo on the bus,’ and got a smile or hello frequently.  The wife gave me some puzzled looks, so I told her I played banjo on the bus. She thinks I’m a nutcase.”

The last act on the Watson stage is Rosanne Cash. Rosanne has gone through a hard year, with her father Johnny and his wife June dying last summer. She plays a lovely and relaxed set, and Jim Lauderdale joins her to sing her father’s song, “Big River.” Rosanne is then re-united with Doc Watson and they sing a couple of songs together. To see Doc, who knew Johnny and June and the Carter clan from way back, playing with Johnny’s daughter is quite touching. After her set is over we all start to walk back to the exit when we realize that there is one last stage left that is filled with music. On the Traditional stage the Gospel Jubilators have just finished, and what a wonderful a cappella gospel quartet they are, from Durham, North Carolina. 

Mindy Smith

Next up is the Reeltime Travelers. The Traditional stage tent is packed as the last performance of the day begins. The Travelers are a young band that play an exuberant music known as old-time. Old-time is the music that pre-dates bluegrass and country music, and can be traced back from the mountains of Appalachia to its origins in the hills of Scotland and Ireland centuries ago. They have carried on the tradition, but do it their way, with many original tunes of their own in the mix. With Brandon Story on bass, Martha Scanlon on guitar, Tom Sneed on mandolin, Heidi Andrade on fiddle, and husband Roy Andrade on banjo, the band met around Johnson City, Tennessee and were drawn together by a love of real Appalachian music. Even now they continue to go out in the field and talk with old mountain musicians, and try to uncover forgotten songs to add to their repertoire. 

As the band gets closer to the end of their show the crowd gets even more enthusiastic and boisterous. Off to the side of the stage I see a Merlefest official who signals to the band that they have five more minutes to play. It has been a long weekend, and those that work at the festival are worn out and want to go home. As they end their last song the Travelers stand to the back of the stage as the official comes up to say thanks to the crowd and to wish them a safe trip home. The crowd is having none of it, as they get louder and louder in demanding an encore.  The official relents and asks for a short song, and the band promptly starts into it. This time everyone knows that this is it; these are the lasts notes that will be played at Merlefest. When the song reaches a wonderful pinnacle there is a sense of happiness

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