In 1985, the son of legendary Doc Watson, Eddy Merle Watson, passed away. Trying to find a way to keep his son’s memory alive, the elder Watson rounded up a cast of musicians from traditional bluegrass, hillbilly, and “jam” bands to stage the first Merlefest. The result is that Merlefest has become the equivalent of the Appalachian Woodstock. Now in its fifteenth year and with an A-list group of musicians performing each year, Merlefest is celebrating the anniversary with a DVD, VHS, and CD package. The album could have contained musicians such as Patty Loveless, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Krauss among others. Instead, the disc is a look towards the future with some of the best up and coming musicians around. Although there are some known musicians like Peter Rowan, most of the record deals with what’s on the horizon.
Starting the 20-something tracks is Doyle Lawson & Quicksilver doing “The Hard Game of Love”, a slow Bill Monroe-like bluegrass song. Here, Lawson sounds eerily like Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, but that might be shortchanging the band somewhat. Having performed for nearly four decades, Lawson sounds like the real deal as the supporting cast fills out guitars, violin, banjo, and mandolin. Later, they perform “Poor Boy Working Blues” with the same verve. Hot Rize, another longtime and longstanding bluegrass group, gives a decent live rendition of “Keep Your Lamp Trimmed and Burning”, a blues-based tune that has some fine picking throughout. But their second track, “Radio Boogie”, comes off bland and pale compared to the first song. Dale Ann Bradley, who would be compared along with Alison Krauss and, to a lesser extant, Dolly Parton, gives a very good impression on “The Rockin’ Chair”, a ballad that sounds contemporary without being too slick.
The first cowboy collaboration is Peter Rowan and Don Edwards performing “I’m Going to Leave Old Texas Now” with just a hint of yodel in their voices. An ambling number, Rowan’s mandolin playing is deep in the mix but makes the tune move along for nearly six minutes. Most of the album moves into the high-paced bluegrass or the slower ballads that often are found on O Brother Where Art Thou. Kathy Kallick, who sings “Row Us over the Tide”, definitely falls into the latter category. Her voice isn’t the strongest around however, sounding a bit weak in places. Sally Jones comes off like Judy Collins on “Sipsey” and also on “Love Hurts”. The heavy and manic bluegrass picking on “Hay in the Barn”, courtesy of Pine Mountain Railroad, is a great example of another traditional toe-tapping bluegrass tune.
Unfortunately, the one huge drawback to this collection is the poor way in which the track listing moves. It resembles a bad homemade cassette tape, as the running order of the artists on the first half, with the exception of Peter Rowan and Don Edwards, is identical to the second. Either more artists or variety could have been used or the songs could have been doubled-up, but this seems to diminish the overall effort. It’s hard not to appreciate this music, though. Lynn Morris does a great job on the highly paced “Scraps from Your Table”. The Red Stick Ramblers throw some needed color into the record with the swinging “Nagasaki”, a tune the Squirrel Nut Zippers should have recorded at some point.
One refreshing surprise is the a cappella version of “The Gospel Train” by Mountain Heart. Taking everything down to its bare essentials, even the harmonica solo is sparse as one of the members gives it a great lonesome sound. Nearly as lonesome sounding is Kathy Kallick on “Waterbound”, a Carter Family influenced song that the listener can imagine, visualizing all the performers around one microphone. Polecat Creek’s “Before” harks back to way before the genre became popular or as “mainstream” as it is now. Overall, though, Merlefest is a good portrait of what takes places over four grand days in late April.