Like the bluegrass genre itself, Doc Watson's annual tribute festival to his late son, guitarist/banjo player Eddy Merle Watson, has grown up, spread its wings and taken off. Back in 1987, the first Merlefest featured a handful of bluegrass pickers on two flatbed trucks playing to a small but enthusiastic crowd on the grounds of Wilkes Community College. That benefit was held to raise funds for a memorial garden on campus in memory of Merle, who died in a freak tractor accident in 1985.
Today, the lush Eddy Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses has become the country's premier garden for the visually impaired with its wooded paths, sculptured walls and plantings selected for their high sensory appeal. And the festival that helped birth the garden is now one of the country's premier music festivals.
In 2001, some 70,000 music lovers passed through Merlefest's gates to hear music collectively classified as "Americana": bluegrass in all its current hybrids, folk-rock, old-time country and Doc Watson's own singular sound that blends bluegrass, old-time, gospel and folk (he calls it "Doc-a-billy"). Even the pop-infused Hootie & The Blowfish played the festival a few years ago--causing a minor scandal among purists. More than 100 bands will perform at the event, with 13 different stages to accommodate them all (and nary a flatbed truck in sight).
Regardless of changes in size and style, however, Merlefest still upholds its exalted reputation as a family-oriented mecca--a favorite among its diehard regulars, including both music fans and the musicians who come back time and time again to play the fest.
"Nothing compares to Merlefest," says Dan Tyminski, who's played the festival numerous times in his role as guitarist/mandolinist/vocalist for Alison Krauss & Union Station. But this year when Tyminski returns with the band, it'll be as a star in his own right, even if the song that's made him famous is often associated more with a certain handsome actor than with the musician himself.
These days, Tyminski is officially known as "The Voice of George Clooney" due to his version of the bluegrass standard, "I Am A Man of Constant Sorrow," in the Coen brothers' film, O Brother, Where Art Thou? Tyminski voiced the track for Clooney's character, and it's his version that's included on the film's wildly popular soundtrack album.
"It's been an interesting experience, to say the least," he notes with a laugh. "It's so much fun. I've gotten acknowledgments from both sides--from people who were more interested in the whole George Clooney thing and the movie and people who just bought the record and heard the song. And I think finally more and more people are looking at the song for what it is on the record."
The "record" has sold more than five million copies, won five Grammys (including Album of the Year) and is the first-ever bluegrass album to hit No. 1 on the Billboard charts, a position it holds today. Tyminski himself actually won six Grammys, including one for his work with Alison Krauss & Union Station, who won Best Bluegrass Album for their disc, New Favorite. He also picked up two Country Music Association awards for his work on O Brother (for Single of the Year and Album of the Year), plus four International Bluegrass Music Association Awards. All in all, it was a huge year for the bluegrass musician by any standards.
The O Brother, Where Art Thou? soundtrack features a Who's Who of Americana and bluegrass luminaries--including the late John Hartford, Ralph Stanley, Emmylou Harris, Norman Blake, Alison Krauss and Gillian Welch--performing beloved standards. But it's Tyminski's soaring vocals on "I Am a Man of Constant Sorrow" that have garnered the most raves.
While the combined commercial and critical success of the O Brother soundtrack is heretofore unheard of for a bluegrass album, it's a testament to the enduring appeal of the genre. The record's producer, T Bone Burnett, was recently quoted in Rolling Stone as saying, "To me, the record sounds as vibrant and as modern as anything anybody is doing these days. I think we've moved into a time when people want to hear musicians actually singing and playing instead of being corrected by machines."
Tyminski has his own views on the topic. "Well, bluegrass has had its upswings and downswings," he says. "Ultimately, it's always been a very pure form of music; it can be created in a room with no electricity, and you can't say that for most forms of music these days. Right now, there just seems like a good combination of [bluegrass] acts out there. And it just so happened that this record all came together and it got tied with the movie, and the big names really got it a lot of attention. So once people checked it out, they ended up digging it."
Tyminski's always dug bluegrass. Though he grew up in the north woods of Vermont, far from the roots of bluegrass, his parents were big-time fans of the genre. "They just took me all over the place to hear any live bluegrass music that was in a four-hour radius. It was my only music option as a kid, since my parents listened to it all the time and that was what was in our house."
At the age of 6, he moved from listening to playing when he learned a couple of guitar chords from his older brother, Stan. "I'd say, though, that my first real instrument was the mandolin, which I learned to play when I was 8," he recalls. "Then, when I was 12 I really started to play music seriously and that's when I learned to play the banjo."
By his early teens, he was playing the banjo in his brother's group, the Green Mountain Bluegrass Band, and music quickly became his full-time career. He joined the Lonesome River Band in 1988 after being recruited by the band's guitarist, Tim Austin. He started out on banjo but eventually moved over to mandolin. The group's seminal 1991 release, Carrying the Tradition, won the International Bluegrass Music Association's Album of the Year award, spent six months at the top of the bluegrass charts and catapulted the Lonesome River Band--and its mandolinist--into the genre's corps of elite. When the band encouraged Tyminski to add more vocal duties to his repertoire, he soon gained a reputation for both his fiercely distinctive, fiery tenor on lead and his delicate backup harmonies.
It was his work with the Lonesome River Band that brought Tyminski to the attention of Alison Krauss, and he's been with the universally praised, multi-award-winning Krauss & Union Station since 1994. Besides being a showcase for his instrumental prowess, the group's broad range of Americana material allows Tyminski to contribute his gorgeous harmonies; he even steps up for lead-vocal duty on many of their traditional bluegrass numbers. "It's been an awesome, amazing experience," Tyminski says his tenure in the band.
In 2002, Tyminski released his first solo album, the modern-bluegrass extravaganza Carry Me Across the Mountain, to critical acclaim. "I really want to work on another solo album," he says, "but whether it'll be any time soon is hard to say. I'm getting ready to do a live record with Alison, and I just have a lot on my plate right now."
He'll be dishing out a heaping helping, musically speaking, at Merlefest this Saturday, April 27, and he couldn't be more excited. "I have several favorite festivals for several different reasons," he reveals. "The Telluride Festival because it's so beautiful out there [in Colorado], the Berkshires Festival and so on. But I'm a family man now and Merlefest is absolutely the best for all-around fun and entertainment and just plain good music."
Merlefest 2002 takes place April 25-28 at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. Scheduled performers also include Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs & Friends, Patty Loveless, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Jerry Douglas, Steve Riley & the Mamou Playboys, The Kruger Brothers, Blue Highway, The Sam Bush Band, Peter Rowan, John Hammond, The John Cowan Band, Etta Baker, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Yonder Mountain String Band, Chris Smither and many more. For ticket and schedule info visit at www.merlefest.org or call (800) 343-7857, 10 a.m.-4 p.m.