by Dan Schram
The 26th annual MerleFest returned to the campus of Wilkes Community College last weekend. One major figure was missing, of course: This year's Merlefest somberly marked the first without the festival's patriarch, Doc Watson, who passed away in May 2012.
Many asked if, after the passing of Watson, his beloved gathering in western North Carolina would change. “This year we thought it was important to celebrate the life and music of our dear friend Doc Watson,” answered Ted Hagaman, director of the festival. “For the past 25 years, he has been the artistic center of MerleFest, so everyone—musicians and fans—came together as a family to pay special tribute to the man and the musician who meant so much to us all.”
Indeed, throughout the weekend, Watson's name rang out from both those on the stage and in front of it. And while many remembered Watson with a somber tone, others celebrated having seen him at all. They were thankful for the memories.
Elsewhere on the festival grounds, things carried on just as Watson might have wanted. The grounds teemed with life on Saturday; despite a forecast of rain, the crowds came to 14 stages, each providing opportunities to enjoy "traditional-plus" music, a phrase coined by Watson himself. Indeed, bluegrass, old-time, rock ’n’ roll, Western swing, blues, pop and Americana found the spotlight among the 90 groups participating. Some of the acts made some (namely, me) scratch their head about the festival’s direction, but MerleFest provides a wide umbrella of music that has caused attendance to steadily grow since 1988.
While Doc and his wife, Rosa Lee, both passed away in the past year, their seats on the side of the Watson stage remained reserved. They gave so much to entertaining throughout their lives; that gesture was a humble reminder of their influence and legacy.
Below are a few video clips from the festival: Chatham County Line pays tribute to Doc Watson, while The South Carolina Broadcasters pay tribute to George Jones, who passed away the day before. Meanwhile, Kickin' Grass performed on the Americana stage.
Chatham County Line, “Train That Carried My Girl From Town”
South Carolina Broadcasters, “I'll Have A New Body (I'll Have A New Life)”
Kickin Grass, “Sparrow”