Photo by Bob Alexander
Jim Lauderdale's view during the Hillside Album Hour.
It was early Saturday morning when I crossed into Wilkes County and onto the Junior Johnson Highway, approaching the grounds of MerleFest's third day. Late the night before, word arrived that two Triangle songwriters took home first prize in categories of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Content. In the Gospel/Inspirational category, Raleigh's Frank Hurd grabbed the top spot for his song, "Light." In the general set, Joseph Terrell of the Chapel Hill group Mipso, won for his song "Angelina Jane is Long Gone." I was excited to see what sort of surprises Saturday might hold.
On the festival grounds, Lynda Dawson and Pattie Hopkins played the Americana stage. Members of the Triangle-based Kickin Grass, they performed a variety of traditional numbers that have inspired them—Hazel Dickens, Alice Gerrard, Bill Monroe, Doc Watson. The duo's strengths are their beautifully blended harmonies and Hopkins' rounded fiddle style. They paid wonderful, proper tribute to Watson, performing his "Your Long Journey Home."
Asheville's Town Mountain then hit the Hillside stage. Town Mountain features former Chapel Hill mainstay Bobby Britt, who, for the second week in a row, has powered through a festival date while playing with a head brace after intensive jaw surgery. Despite the early-morning set, the group entertained a large crowd, unleashing one driving number after another as Robert Greer demonstrated why he picked up last year's IBMA Momentum award for Vocalist of the Year.
On Saturday at MerleFest, you can count on two things: a large crowd of people as you move from stage to stage, and that the Creekside stage's lineup will be stacked from top to bottom. This year was no different. The sunny weather that festival-goers craved on Friday arrived; in turn, most areas on the campus of Wilkes County Community College were full. And the Creekside stage featured a number of collaborative performances, including a "Memories of Doc" set hosted by Doc's longtime bass player, T. Michael Coleman. With Doc's brother David Watson and cousin Kermit Watson watching over the music, Coleman called up many of collaborators of his fallen musical leader. Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence, Bryan Sutton and David Holt played in this loose band. Between songs, Coleman held court, asking the crowd Watson-related trivia questions and tossing out frisbees and t-shirts in exchange. The hour-long program ended with the Nashville Bluegrass Band coming to the stage to play the last number Doc Watson performed at MerleFest on the same stage: "I'll Fly Away".
The sun soon began beating down on every inch of shaded space. While many headed to get an early seat for the guest-heavy, Waybacks-led "album hour" (this year, Deja Vu),
others headed for the air conditioning and wi-fi in the Walker Center. Soon, Bryan Sutton executed another perfect version of the "Beaumont Rag" there, so the time was well spent.
Dr. Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys played the after-dinner set on the Watson stage. With help from his grandson, Nathan, Stanley worked through the numbers people wanted to hear—"Man of Constant Sorrow," "Little Maggie," "O Death." Things got interesting when some special guests disrupted the somewhat formulaic presentation. Jim Lauderdale, who released two albums with Dr. Stanley, joined the group for a few numbers. Later in the set, Ricky Skaggs came to the stage to sit in with his old boss, singing "Nobody's Love is Like Mine." Skaggs later remarked how he's sung that song with Stanley many times, but that take felt special. After all, not long ago, Stanley said he was finishing his "Farewell Tour," but he's recanted.
"When I thought about it, I just couldn't do it," he said. "I had to have a take back."
Lynda Dawson and Pattie Hopkins, "Your Long Journey Home"
Town Mountain, "Hope Shadows Fear & The Race Is On"
Larry Keel & The Natural Bridge, "Southern Nights"
Memories of Doc Watson, "Black Mountain Rag & Summertime"