When: June 2-4, 9 p.m. 2017
Most goodbye parties, no matter how heartfelt, end up as happy grace notes and are left at that. WillFest started out as a sincere farewell for departing guitar master Will McFarlane, who was relocating from North Carolina back to Muscle Shoals, Alabama. Friends and family gathered at the Blue Note Grill for a sendoff, but participants were so enthused they vowed to repeat it the following year. Since then, WillFest has evolved into an annual weekend-long event, a potluck, and a family-friendly celebration, replete with its own traditions and returning veterans.
McFarlane is a master of the rhythm guitar. Unlike the more easily identified art of lead guitar, which tends to dazzle, great rhythm guitar parts don't put on a performance so much as pick their moments; McFarlane has made a career out of making the subtlest, deftest contributions. Simply watch one of his guitar lessons on YouTube, and the concision and fluidity of his playing is readily apparent in a few phrases.
After being wowed by the Beatles on Ed Sullivan, McFarlane drifted toward R&B and Motown in high school. His career began in earnest in 1974, when Bonnie Raitt asked him to join her on tour, an association that was crucial both for the development of his playing style as well as for providing him with the ability to listen, to hear what other players are playing and contribute accordingly. And while he's done his share of solo work, McFarlane's chosen spot is as a member of a band rather than the focus of it.
When McFarlane first moved to Muscle Shoals in 1980 for a change of lifestyle, those skills earned him entry into the legendary rhythm section known as the Swampers, who'd played on the seminal R&B hits of the sixties. Lending his talents as a guitarist, he has amassed a wealth of collaborations with soul giants like Etta James, Johnnie Taylor, and Little Milton. He's worked with Levon Helm and neo-soul artists like Joss Stone and is a member of the Nashville Musicians Hall of Fame.
This year's WillFest will gather a familiar core group of talented collaborators, including Armand Lenchek, Danny Gotham, and Joel Sugarman, who'll join McFarlane for an all-acoustic evening to kick things off. He'll front a full band on Saturday night, and Sunday is all about audience participation, so bring your guitar.
WillFest has taken root not just because Will McFarlane is great player but because of his skills as a listener. He's the kind of person others want to be around. And he can play the guitar just like ringing a bell. —David Klein