Photo by Dan Schram
Williamson, second from left, at last year's Mando Mania at MerleFest.
Raleigh resident Tony Williamson has been a fixture at the Wilkes County bluegrass festival Merlefest
since 1995. Each year, his "Mando Mania" serves as a must-see event. The hour-long program brings the best mandolinsts on the festival grounds together to sing songs, pick, and discuss their love for the instrument. Outside of being an accomplished mandolinist, Williamson doubles as a collector and dealer of vintage mandolins
He sat down with the INDY
to discuss his annual and rightly lauded "Mando Mania" showcase at Merlefest. Merlefest runs throughout the weekend in Wilkesboro.
INDY: What are your earliest memories of Merlefest?
Tiny uncovered stage with lots of woods behind. Hiking by the creek and climbing through the woods. Listening to Emmylou Harris from a vantage point way on top of the hill behind the stage. Camping and picking all night, every night. Buying and selling incredibly rare vintage instruments right there on the grounds. A rainy weekend when, while I was slogging from stage to stage, my kids were wallowing in mud. Incredible jam sessions. Living next door and spending time with Doc Watson at the Addison Inn motor lodge.
How did the festival approach you about hosting Mando Mania?
Mando Mania came out of a crazy idea I had at the Midnight Jam in 1996, twenty years ago. As you know, on Saturday night, at the Walker Center, an indoor auditorium, there is a late-running concert made up of musicians that do not normally play together. Seats are limited and only the brave folks willing to give up a night of sleep can attend. The audience gets to see some rare chemistry as old friends and new acquaintances team up.
I happened to have on hand an entire collection of mandolin-family instruments, including mandocello and mando bass. I went around to all my mandolin picking buddies and invited them to join me at the jam. As an introduction, I first played a mandolin solo, “Road To Pedro’s,”
that received a standing ovation. Then I said, "And now, for a bit of mania—mando mania, that is!" And out they came to join me: Sam Bush, Tim O’Brien, as well as Radim Zenkl from Czech Republic. Don Wright played mandocello, Frank Greenhouse and Ralph McGee on mandola and John Cowan on mandobass … a stage full of mandos! Oh what I would give for a video of that! There were, of course, no smart phones or YouTube in those days! The audience was on their feet and the ovations and encores went on and on.
It was such a big splash, the next year I was asked to bring the same idea to the Creek Side stage so everyone at the festival could enjoy Mando Mania.
How do you go about selecting who joins you?
The chemistry involved is the most important aspect. Talent and camaraderie converge here. It all starts with Sam Bush, of course. He is the epitome of the musician’s musician who loves his mandolin-pickin’ buddies! He has a way of bringing folks together and raising the energy level of everyone on the stage. From there, it becomes a matter of scheduling from the list of who is available; I like to have some representatives of well-known pros like David Grisman, Tim O’Brien, Chris Thile, Mike Compton, Mike Marshall, and Don Sternberg.
Then, it is important to me to find some of the young players from some of the new bands. They are usually very excited to get the chair, and their nervous energy and mentor-mentee feedback loop also creates another level of excitement.
A few years back, I asked the festival to help me break a pattern: I had noticed in classical mandolin, many women held important positions in the orchestras and some were brilliant players. But in bluegrass/folk/country genres, the mandolin playing community, except for a few notable exceptions like Donna Stoneman, was a boy’s club. With the help of the the festival artist coordinator, I set about to ask great female players to join us. Rhonda Vincent was the first. After her, we had a stream of great young ladies including Sierra Hull, Sarah Jarosz, Rebecca Lovell, and Jenni Lynn Gardner. There is no question that the addition of female energy helped create a whole new dynamic, raising even higher the excitement level of Mando Mania.
Who are some of the up-and-coming pickers you've had sit in over the years?
The standout moment of asking a young newcomer was the year a young kid from California showed up at Merlefest; he was only 13, and he was hanging around the Mandolin Central booth trying out mandolins. I asked him to join us on Mando Mania: Chris Thile. Yes! It was unbelievable! Even then, he was a master of effortless dexterity. His runs and scales dropped jaws from front row to the very back of the park!
Each year, I ask new young players who never fail to rise to the level of performance. Last year, Andrew Marlin from Mandolin Orange joined us for a great outing , and I am looking at yet another surprise newcomer for 2016, our twenty-year anniversary.
What's on tap for this year?
To receive the answer to that, you will need to be at Merlefest on Saturday. Of course, Sam Bush and I will be there, but there are some pretty dramatic surprises that will remain surprises until we hit the stage.