For four days each April, the place is vibrant with humanity, as people from all over come to this Mecca of roots music called Merlefest, which gracefully celebrates the old as much as it concedes to, and welcomes, the new.
Nestled at the base of the billion year-old Blue Ridge Mountains, it was once no doubt a picturesque village. But capitalism has left its glaring mark: a hideous new Hampton Inn hotel, a giant Tyson chicken processing plant, and a Wal-Mart are terrible reminders that the future American landscape will be characterized more by its uniformity, and less by the diverse micro-cultures once found in each small town. For now at least, a few of Wilkesboro's structures show glimpses of its simpler days: along Main Street there's the once-grand neo-classical court house, and several old brick buildings, one of which houses a natural foods market, a sports bar and the Pipedreams headshop. But for four days each April, the place is vibrant with humanity, as people from all over come to this Mecca of roots music called Merlefest, which gracefully celebrates the old as much as it concedes to, and welcomes, the new.
The region known as Appalachia spreads out over the entire state of West Virginia, and parts of New York, Pennsylvania, Maryland, Virginia, Ohio, Kentucky, Tennessee, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi, and has been one of the most musically fertile regions in this country for generations. Without this region's songs and folklore, the traditional music canon as it is today would be far less voluminous, and not nearly as rich -- rather than a national phenomenon, country music would merely be a regional peculiarity.
My first time here was back in 2002 with a pal who was covering the event. Relics of what we considered to be the golden age of popular music -- when it was more oral tradition than recording contracts -- were said to be performing regularly. Indeed, we were blessed enough to see and hear Honeyboy Edwards, a contemporary of Robert Johnson, who claims to have been present when Johnson was famously, and fatally, poisoned by a jealous husband. Edwards had the "real" blues, the kind you heard 75 years ago, back when a guitar, a song, and some corn liquor cured everything. Other performers ran the gamut of folk music -- from hillbilly hootenannies to blues to early rock and roll, and everything in between. We attempted to see every single set there was to see with the overzealousness of a thousand music nerds. This proved impossible, there being 15 different stages with simultaneous acts. But damn it if we didn't try. Run ragged from 14 hours of music daily, we returned to our camp each night only to crash. This year the two of us, plus my pal's brother, opted for a more reasonable approach, spending as much time enjoying the camping as we did the music, and found it to be a revelation: more than just about the music, Merlefest is also very much about congregation. As pilgrims flock to the holy land, people of all ages and backgrounds come to worship at the altars of country legends like Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson -- and by proxy Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, Bill Monroe, and Merle Haggard -- on down to the younger apostles like Gillian Welch and the Old Crow Medicine Show. Unlike the holy land, however, which offers a paltry communion with God, Merlefest has an outdoor mall offering up barbecued and organic victuals, fine musical instruments, miscellaneous groovy paraphernalia, and an incredible selection of music. At day's end everyone heads back to their campfires for smoky eats and mandatory sing-alongs of "The Weight", or any number of folk standards, and so it goes for the next several days.
Old school buses serve as free shuttles between the campgrounds and the festival grounds, chauffeured by jolly Scout Masters from the local Boy Scout troops. Crammed in like steer, we bounce along to the entrance of Wilkesboro Community College, whose campus plays perennial host to the festival. Named in honor of Merle Watson, Doc Watson's son and longtime musical companion who died in a 1985 tractor accident, Merlefest boasts past guests such as Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Ralph Stanley and Alison Krauss. The big names this year were the Indigo Girls, Rosanne Cash, and Vince Gill but the festival's essence is best represented by the seemingly infinite sets dedicated to acoustic blues, country, and the traditional music of Appalachia, on one of several smaller side stages.
We are frequently reminded by the performers that Merlefest is the nation's best and most multitudinous display of acoustic blues. No argument here; blues institutions Blind Willie Johnson, Skip James, Gary Davis, and Howlin' Wolf, among myriad others, are paid tribute in a steady rotation. Less nostalgia than a continuing tradition, devout students of the blues (for the most part old white guys) who at some point early in their careers sat adoringly at the feet of one of the true bluesmen, dole out their respectful, skillfully played renditions of their mentors' songs.
Among these old white guys were Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady -- presently of blues-rock band Hot Tuna, but most notably the lead guitarist and bassist, respectively, of seminal '60s psychedelic-rock band Jefferson Airplane -- put on one of the more memorable sets, as part of a panel of musicians including John Bookbinder and Spider John Koerner. Kaukonen's nimble picking, and Casady's electric bass, sharing duties with an upright bass, on a cover of "99 Year Blues", penned by obscure 1920s blues singer Julius Daniels, was in a word, electrifying. Kaukonen's tender "Light of This World", off his recent album Blue Country Heart, coincided miraculously with sunbeams slicing through the clouds that had until that moment cast down rain and grayness. It seems the spirit of Merle Watson keeps things in order from his heavenly perch.
Rain and cool breezes alternated with bright skies and high temperatures. Rays of light shone through the heavy clouds and performed little lighting miracles throughout the weekend. Dynamic duo Gillian Welch and David Rawlings began their set at the Austin Stage under a particularly stubborn, sullen sky, but just as they started into "I Want to Sing That Rock and Roll", their wan, darkly-clad forms upon the wooden stage were dramatically illuminated. Caught off-guard, idle photographers cocked their cameras and rushed frantically to the foot of the stage to capture the moment. This was Welch's first set of the festival and the nearly 30-degree angle of the hill facing the stage was absolutely teeming with people. A highlight for many of those unfamiliar with Welch's own music (like the older folks) was the melancholy "Make Me a Pallet on Your Floor", a standard traditional song famously sung by Mississippi John Hurt but which Welch said she learned from a Doc Watson record. Their set the following day at the Creekside Stage garnered their most effusive crowd response. Welch's down-tempo, acoustic rendition of Jimi Hendrix' "Manic Depression" and Rawlings' version of the traditional tune "Big Rock Candy Mountain" elicited swells of applause and cheering.
Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush
Proceeding to the Hillside Stage, we saw the standard Merlefest jam line-up consisting of mandolinist Sam Bush, singer Peter Rowan and prolific dobroist Jerry Douglas among several others. Their respective solo projects are hit-or-miss: Douglas' uncanny skill on the dobro has graced some of the most important country albums of the past two decades but his meandering show-off jams get boring after 45 minutes. Peter Rowan's Crucial Reggae is a truly self-indulgent smattering of pseudo-reggae as done by a bluegrass musician -- even Burning Spear's horn section, which makes up part of Rowan's band, can't save this one. But when the three come together, the show is a crowd favorite, and in a sense distills all major aspects of the festival: they unconcerned with image, the music is a combination of old and new, and their energy, skill and genuine love for the music appeals to everyone. Their take on traditional songs has been called progressive bluegrass -- that is, they blend bluegrass with rock and roll elements to create a very jam-oriented sound. Bush and Rowan have both collaborated with members of the Grateful Dead over the years, Rowan having been the lead singer for legendary Dead side project Old And In the Way. Needless to say, the tie-dye quotient at this set was particularly high (no pun intended).
The three of us then headed back to our temporary abode at the Creekside campsite for lunch. Pitching the tent earlier, our neighbor Randall, I believe it was, defensively explained the space we were in was reserved for the horseshoe course they planned to install. "Sorry boys," we said. "We'll just move over by the brush there." Randall's slightly red, pissed-off expression quickly turned to southern politesse when he realized we hadn't come here to start any trouble. Soon enough all was nice and friendly-like. But we kept a wary distance when, between their tone-deaf renditions of Temple of the Dog and Bob Marley tunes, Randall and the good old boys began emerging from their tent sniffling, rubbing their noses, and loudly asking each other where the mirror was. Hmmm.
The Indigo Girls
The campers on our other side, in contrast, were local hippies with mandolins, guitars, a VW camper, a giant tarp they let us scoot our tent under, and all-around good vibes. Much more our speed. Having just seen Doc Watson's set at the Austin Stage with his grandson Richard, where they treated us to the classic "Shady Grove", and a rendition of Merle Haggard's "Working Man Blues", which Watson said he "added some sweetness to," we shared our appreciation with our neighbors. They regaled us with stories of close encounters with the venerable Watson; apparently Watson is a regular at a vacuum store in the nearby town of Boone, where folks get together from time to time and jam. Our neighbor had happened upon it once and was invited to join in. One of the old-timers commented about "the hippie kid," causing Watson to step up in his defense. Watson's almost life-long blindness has inevitably freed him from such prejudices, but it seems his magnanimity and compassion are innate parts of his character, ultimately unaffected by his disability. The Merlefest devotees -- local folks, or folks that pile into their RV's and come down year after year -- hold the festival's patriarch in high esteem. And it's infectious. As at a giant family reunion, or perhaps more pointedly a wake where everyone shares tender stories of the deceased, one gets the feeling that this truly is a celebration for Merle... with 82,500 members of your extended family. There is a certain nobility to this festival's purpose that sets it apart from all others, and the warm feeling one encounters here can only be described as familial.
Back at the camp, a rental sedan pulled up right to our tent and out poured several folks I had met weeks before in New York City who were also planning to attend the festival. Mind you, the chances of us never running into each other at such a large event were quite good, let alone on the first try. But the fates were smiling down upon us. Among their group were amateur and professional musicians legitimizing our camp each evening with song. Critter Fuqua, banjoist and songwriter for Old Crow Medicine Show joined us Saturday night to play some old Appalachian songs, a sing-along of "The Weight" naturally, and some Pogues tunes -- a band that rock-ed up traditional Irish music in the same way that OCMS has with the old-time string band sound. We shared our camp with them for the rest of the weekend and many more sing-alongs ensued.
The "big" acts are generally saved for the Watson Stage (main stage), and the Cabin Stage (an actual reconstructed cabin) directly to the right. Tall and slender spot-lit trees fan out above the stages against a newly dried-out sky, stars twinkling and the moon nearly ful -- a striking setting to say the least. The Indigo Girls were on the main stage the first night of the festival but we were too tired to stay for their set so we tuned the car radio back at the camp to the local station where the entire festival was broadcasting live, and enjoyed it that way.
Saturday night, the main attraction was Vince Gill -- the best-selling artist in the history of country music, for whom people turned out in droves to hear. His Huey Lewis-meets-country pop music fare is catchy enough, but not quite digestible for us three snoots in search of authenticity. Just prior to Gill, however, was the always mesmerizing and legendary Earl Scruggs, whose three-finger picking style (which he developed at the age of 10) revolutionized the way the banjo is played and has made him one of the most influential figures in music today. A man of few words, he sat stoically on stage dressed sharply in black and tore through his trademarks "The Ballad of Jed Clampett" (theme from The Beverly Hillbillies) and perhaps the most famous bluegrass tune "Foggy Mountain Breakdown", as well as various other self-penned compositions, and a host of Appalachian standards, at a lightning-quick pace. To see his fingers glide smoothly across the banjo strings, one would never guess they produced such dexterous sounds. A hummingbird might not even beat its wings this fast.
And almost as quickly as it came, the end of our Merlefest experience was nigh. Leaving the festival grounds on a high from that Scruggs banjo, we hopped the old school bus back to the camp and settled in for a last night of revelry 'round the fire. I almost had to be pried away from the makeshift utopia that the Creekside Campground had become for me. It seems an event of such purity, bringing all types of people together in celebration would be so anathema to the dark forces which trouble these times that it might somehow be prevented from occurring at all. Yet there stands Merlefest defiantly year after year. Like a salve on the soul it renews one's faith in music, humanity, and by golly it might even turn you into a God-fearing Christian -- there's only so many times you can hear those lively country spirituals before they get you to thinking. But if you just can't quit your sinnin', there's always next year's Appalachian redemption.