Photo credit: Scott Waldman
Photo credit: Scott Waldman
David “Honeyboy” Edwards
Photo credit: Scott Waldman
Photo credit: Scott Waldman
MERLEFEST: AN INTRODUCTION
31 Dec 1969: Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Somewhere along south Rt. 77 heading south, the mountains start to rise like well-used fangs poking out from the earth’s core. As Virginia yields to North Carolina, clouds rest on the highway, masking the vast valleys lurking beneath. The green of early spring is as comforting as a hello spoken through a friendly southern drawl. Turning onto Rt. 421, where red dirt bleeds onto the road, the homeland of flatpicking guitar legend Doc Watson reveals itself to be just like anywhere in Backroads, USA. Doc’s annual music festival, Merlefest, now in its 15th year, is about to attract 70,000 people here over the next four days to picturesque Wilkes County.
The landscape of North Carolina is not unlike the bluegrass music that thrives within its borders; bright, rambling, enigmatic, and energizing. And bluegrass is as American of an art form they come. It is history bounced along to an unstoppable beat. Bluegrass music is the celebratory voice of those who flourish in this land, as well as the heartbreaking voice of those that have been lost here. A Merlefest attendee’s heart beats faster than a Bill Monroe mandolin solo as Route 268 twists and turns on the last leg of the journey through Wilkesboro; a macadamized maze that creates last minute tension.
An annual phenomenon for the past 15 years, Merlefest is held to honor Merle Watson, Doc’s son and musical partner, who was tragically killed in a tractor accident in 1985. At night, when the lights illuminate the towering oaks behind the Watson stage, it’s easy to imagine Merle’s ghost perched on a branch, along with the ghosts of Bill Monroe, Carter Stanley, Lester Flatt, and Ira Louvin, soaking in the sounds that echo on the blue ridges for miles around.
Dreadlocked youths, who utter phrases like “dank nugs,” spread hand-sewn blankets on a patch of grass next to the deluxe armchairs of retirees wearing matching Appalachian State T-Shirts who say they traveled here in an R.V. The air hangs a bit heavier as Patchouli intermingles with Old Spice. At Merlefest, hippies and retirees alike sit in the sun for hours to hear Earl Scruggs, bopping their diverse heads to the same beat. Next to them young New York professionals talk with college girls from Asheville. The smell of roasting corn wafts on the breeze, like it senses weakness, but doesn’t seem to distract the hundreds of kids nearby who are rock climbing, making art projects, and watching a flea circus. There is a large playground and a Little Picker’s tent full of hundreds more kids as well as a “Garden of the Senses” stocked with young teenagers who mingle and chatter for hours, days even—helpless hormonal slaves.
Merlefest planners are more than equipped to handle the more than 70,000 attendees who hail from places as faraway as Europe and Japan. Vendors sell every thing from “phatty burritos” to obscure bluegrass albums to original handmade show prints by the artists at Yee-Haw Industries. The fifteen stages and the kids’ area spread the crowds out nicely. In fact, the only time there seemed to be an excess of people was on Saturday night, which featured Alison Krauss this year. Fortunately, on the side stages traditional music can be heard the way it was meant to be—live, outside, and with an intimate crowd. Even festival superstars Doc Watson and Gillian Welch can be seen here.
Merlefest is Mecca for people who love music. The sounds that will ring out for the next four days from the fifteen stages of Merlefest, like Doc Watson himself, go far beyond the narrow strictures of traditional bluegrass. Making a pilgrimage to Merlefest is well worth the cost. Something higher is at stake. Listening to some of this country’s finest music from noon to midnight and losing all sense of time is a wonderful way to surrender the self to a spiritual experience.
The greatest attribute of Merlefest is that it is something different for every one who attends. Some come to hear the old folks, some to discover the new folks. Some just want to hear both together. Still others make the trip to jam with their fellow bluegrass and traditional music enthusiasts. Merlefest is not a singular experience that is easily summed up. Vast stage schedules and four wonderfully long days present an array of possibilities. Any summary of Merlefest is merely a singular interpretation. Even people traveling together will have different experiences. It is a reflection on the wealth of discovery waiting to happen at Merlefest that this article is so limited.
Well over a hundred artists, across different genres, appear at Merlefest. A bluegrass twang dominates Merlefest, but traditional music and blues feature prominently as well. The state of this American music is thriving, primarily because key artists know how to keep their new music vital even a half century after they first started playing. If the new direction that this music will take is to be examined, the places from where it has come must first be looked at.
Any fan of bluegrass relishes a performance by one of the living members of the bluegrass elite; Doc, Earl Scruggs, and Ralph Stanley, among others. To see any of these musicians perform is to witness musical history no less significant than the Normans sacking England in 1066 was to world history. But at Merlefest history is not reduced to something that now must be displayed behind glass cases. Merlefest is a place to watch musical history at as it happens, hear it in its prime (bluegrass musicians become ageless as they get older), and get its autograph.
AMERICAN MUSIC ROOTS: LIVE AT MERLEFEST
Friday April 26, Afternoon
Doc Watson, who’s been blind since the age of one, is led onto the Austin stage by his accompanist, Richard Holt. His blindness, as he describes to a pin-dropping silent audience, is due to an infection possibly caused by a chemical that midwives once used to wash babies’ eyes. A few notes of “Shady Grove”, Doc’s signature tune, are picked out as a warm up, then Doc gives an OK to Richard on Banjo and they take off. Not a voice can heard at this moment on the grassy hill where a few hundred people are sitting. Mouths are held open for an entire song before people even become aware that they are open.
Rather then let his disability dictate his life, Doc has become successful enough at his job to be able to host a festival that will soon reach 80,000 attendees. He is a living testament that the secret to life lies in nothing more than ones own personal interpretation. This blind man from rural North Carolina was never content to raise a family on a government disability check. Doc traveled to perform in New York City for the first time by himself on a Greyhound bus; missing his native Deep Gap, North Carolina all the way and scared to death of playing on stage, but knowing what he had to do to provide for his family.
Doc’s eyes remain squinted shut most of the time, and he has the calm voice of a wise and loving grandfather. In only a few words, he can say a lot: “Some things I’m glad I couldn’t see.” Doc often tells tales between songs, such as the first time he met his wife Rosalee and fell in love with her when he heard her laugh. “She might as well a hit me in the head with a brick. I didn’t have a lick of sense.”
Doc’s eyes are bright blue, surrounded by a vast oracular sea of white, and occasionally he opens them in the middle of the song. For those split seconds, the strength and power in the soul of this 80-year old man beams out and brightens the outer world. The humble face he wears in his everyday life is quickly overshadowed by his more immortal quality—the music he makes.
The fingers of Doc Watson spend a lot of time in the first position (where beginners play their first chords) when he flatpicks his guitar. But as anyone who has ever attempted his style knows, looks are very deceiving. It appears that Doc is just strumming his guitar, but the air is littered with notes. Every once and a while Doc takes a lightning quick stroll up and down the neck of his guitar that is breathtaking to watch and hear. Doc may have lost his eyesight, but he was given the ears and fingers of ten men.
Earl Scruggs, Friday night’s headliner, is one of the principal innovators of an original American art form, bluegrass. Bill Monroe is often credited with inventing bluegrass, but Scruggs gave him the necessary kick in the arse. Scruggs threw an extra finger into the standard clawhammer method of banjo picking (which involves a strum, pluck, strum pattern). Scruggs’ banjo technique allowed him to play faster than most people in the ‘40s. After hearing Scruggs once, Bill Monroe quickly signed him as part of his traveling band, the Blue Grass Boys (the name of Monroe’s band was a tribute to his home state of Kentucky). With Scruggs on board, Bill Monroe’s and his Blue Grass boys would have the entire genre of music that they pioneered named after them.
Even musicians who play different instruments, as master mandolin player Sam Bush revealed in an interview backstage, look up to Scruggs as the master. Sam summed up his reverence for Scruggs, “any banjo player that picks up a banjo, if you don’t know how to play a Scruggs’ roll, then you don’t know how to play a banjo. I can’t think of any other instrument where people are religious about doing it exactly like the master did. He is maybe the greatest genius in the history of American music.”
Like an apple pie being taken out of an oven, an Earl Scruggs’ banjo roll is fresh and steaming. Scruggs’ modesty may rival only Doc’s, and he is just as impressive at age 78. Scruggs’ current stage show involves visits from a bevy of bluegrass superstars, including Dobro master Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Tony Rice, as well as Scruggs’ son Randy.
At his festival performance, Scruggs demonstrated exactly the type of forward thinking that made him an innovator since his earliest days on the banjo. Before he played his classic Foggy Mountain Breakdown he played a version of Dylan’s “You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere”. Not just Dylan, but Basement Tapes-era Dylan. Scrugg’s, who once came under fire from purists for using electric instruments in his act, has consistently demonstrated the type of forward thinking that would make him turn to younger artists in other genres for inspiration. And that is why his music remains as vibrant as it is entertaining. Hearing Foggy Mountain Breakdown resonate off the soft limestone of the Blue Ridge mountains, as it sounds through Earl Scruggs’ banjo, is, in every sense of the word, living.
Saturday April 27, Afternoon
A bottleneck slide up the neck of his steel string guitar wails like an angel trapped on earth when David “Honeyboy” Edwards is in control of it. The chance to witness a performance by Honeyboy at age 86 is worth more than Honeyboy’s weight in scratchy blues 78s. Honeyboy, who, along with Sonny Boy Williamson, was with the legendary Robert Johnson on the night in 1938 that Johnson drank poisoned whiskey and died, is one of the last of a handful of Delta blues musicians that still perform. Before Honeyboy was out of his teens, he had played with blues icon Charlie Patton. Later he’d play alongside the legendary Memphis Jug Band. But all that is nothing more than a fancy resume when Honeyboy takes the stage. It is his guitar playing that certifies his status as the genuine article.
During Honeyboy’s performance at Merlefest the audience kept looking at each other, shaking their heads and smiling. Even strangers did this, united in their disbelief that they could be so fortunate to hear this man live. In a folding chair on a small wooden stage underneath the heavy clouds of a North Carolina afternoon was an old man and an acoustic guitar and it was impossible to keep still. Honeyboy Edwards can swing. This is the essence of the blues, an aural mapping of the musician’s interior landscape. Honeyboy’s finger dexterity has barely been affected by eight decades of music making. And when it came time for Honeyboy to leave, not a single person wanted to sit down while they clapped. It was an unexpected Merlefest highlight.
THE GRASS IS ALWAYS BLUER: THE NEXT GENERATION OF BLUEGRASS
What does it mean to be a bluegrass or traditional musician today? As with any developing genre of music, other influences have seeped in. Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien are key players in the modern development of bluegrass. Both men started out in bands, Newgrass Revival and Hot Rize respectively, that were closer to traditional bluegrass then the music they play today. Bush and O’Brien are as equally adept at jamming in a straightforward bluegrass style with their peers as they are at kicking pop songs, such as The Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood” and Prince’s “1999”, right in the ass with their big bluegrass boots.
O’Brien and Bush are giving bluegrass music the fresh outlook it needs to approach the future. Both men are very attached to their roots and list Monroe’s classic recordings with the Blue Grass Boys as an influence along with Doc Watson’s work, Alan Lomax’s field recordings, and the ubiquitous American Anthology of American Folk Music. But Sam Bush is equally enthralled with Bob Marley and the Police and Tim O’Brien is partial to Rubber Soul and Another Side of Bob Dylan.
O’Brien’s love of Dylan extended to his 1996 album Red on Blonde. O’Brien looks to Dylan as an important contributor to a variety of musical canons. “[Dylan] knows where all the bodies are buried more than most of us mere mortals. He is a great synthesizer of all the roots forms.” Red on Blonde contains some of the finest interpretations of the Minnesota Minstrel yet laid down on wax. O’Brien’s newest effort, Two Journeys, sees him taking on Irish music with the help of such contemporary masters as fiddler Kevin Burke.
O’Brien’s personal mission, as he described in an interview, is to find a universal theme in a song and reinterpret it. Paraphrasing a quote from Neil Morris off an old Alan Lomax tape, O’Brien said, “there’s only one song. each generation comes up and makes it a little different. They write a new verse for it and interpret it for the next generation.” Like Earl Scruggs before him, Tim O’Brien knows the secret formula for keeping his music relevant.
The Sam Bush band came out for their set like a cannonball exploding over Fort McHenry. Bush started his set with an epic mandolin take on “The Star Spangled Banner” that had even the most devoted cynic standing, hand on heart. After that the audience danced and even howled at moon, along with one of Sam’s signature songs. And from there smiles only got broader, especially during Sam’s Bangles/Prince/Kool and the Gang medley. Another side of Sam Bush came out the next day when he did an acoustic impromptu take, along with Peter Rowan and Tony Rice, on the traditional “Banks of the Ohio”. It was the third day of watching Bush flit about between jam sessions as if he were a kid gorged on cotton candy at the county fair. As he played with old masters, contemporaries, and young upstarts like Chris Thile of Nickelcreek (whom Bush and O’Brien both named as a major player in the future of bluegrass) it was obvious that this man must hear music even in his dreams.
Gillian Welch and David Rawlings’ music is as penetrating as a drop of Blue Ridge Mountain rainwater on the back of the neck and as comforting as the arms of a lover in a featherbed in the winter. Just as the Lorax speaks for the trees, Gillian Welch speaks for the restless spirits of Appalachia. Gillian Welch and David Rawlings are living proof that traditional music comes from some other place than a rough backwoods background. On the workshop stage, Gillian and David were asked how they achieved such a timeless quality in their music. Their response, “we’ve listened to a lot of music by people that are dead,” though simple, perhaps is the most persuasive argument as to why the best artists are also primarily the best listeners. Gillian and David are a great comfort to those worried about the future of traditional music, when the genre is no longer graced with new work by Ralph Stanley, Doc Watson, and Earl Scruggs.
Just as when Bill Monroe gave his music a twangy jumpstart it couldn’t comfortably be classified as country anymore, perhaps Sam, Tim, and Gillian and David will someday venture far enough along their own path. Regardless of whether or not these artists will bathe in accolades anytime in the near future, they are well worth a listen. If they can’t be heard live, it’s worth buying one of their albums. Actually, buy two of their albums and give the other to one of those people who claim there’s no good music in this country anymore; show them that there is light at the end of the Brittany Spears’ tunnel.
On the final night of Merlefest, as the full moon becomes bashful behind a layer of clouds, soft twangs emanate from all corners of the campgrounds where most festival-goers stay. From a tent, it might as well be the sirens of the blue ridges. But it’s what happens every night when the professionals have laid down to rest. It is certainly an integral part of the Merlefest experience. People pull out their guitars, fiddles, upright basses, and banjoes, softly strumming to their campfires, and anybody who’ll listen or join in. And if the ages of the people at any one of these fires was to be added up, it still wouldn’t be as old as the songs they’re singing. This is precisely the essence of Merlefest, which is a simultaneous revel and romp in the past, present, and future. As they drift off to sleep with visions of the sugar plum fairy dancing and playing slide guitar in their heads, in the span of human history, one year of waiting for this to happen again is really nothing more an extended blink of the eye.
* * * *
Author’s note: I would like to first thank Traci Thomas and Kim Baum of Grassroots Media for their help and generosity. Please visit their web site at grassrootsmedia.com for more information on some of the finest music publicists around. Also, a special Thank You and acknowledgement to my great traveling companion and friend, music afficionado Chris Fallon.