Wilkes Community College
North Wilkesboro, North Carolina
Thursday, April 28, 2016—Sunday, May 1, 2016
Thursday night at Merlefest is generally the most difficult portion to attend. If you are not committed to camping for the full four days, it doesn't make much sense to come for an abbreviated day. But as the festival grew closer and the weather report for Thursday night called for clear skies, the pull of seeing John Prine under the stars became too much to resist.
Making my way to the festival grounds, the first thing I heard was Nicky Sanders of the Steep Canyon Rangers, teasing the surprisingly large early crowd with the opening notes to Prince's "When Doves Cry." An elderly gentlemen at a Lions Club tent leaned in and remarked, "I was wondering how long it would be before someone played Prince," handing me a bag of trail mix.
After settling in at the main stage, John Prine's first song made the roughly eighty-mile trek from Greensboro well worth it. "This one's for Merle," he said before hitting the opening notes to Haggard's "Ramblin' Fever". His roughly two hour set of all the hits ended with Jim Lauderdale making his way out to sing "Paradise" alongside the songwriting legend.
Friday afternoon started off at the Walker Center. By one p.m., the sun was already beating down on the festival grounds, making it the warmest of the four-day event. I settled into the delightfully cool confines of an one-thousand auditorium just in time for The Waybacks set, a low-key gig that almost seemed like a warm-up. "This seems like a tribute weekend," lead singer James Nash said, referring at once to the passing of David Bowie, Merle Haggard, and Prince. The group welcomed Nicki Bluhm in honoring David Bowie by covering "Space Odyssey" and "I Think I'll Just Stay Here and Drink" by Merle Haggard. (Bluhm's project Brokedown in Bakersfield features some of the best San Francisco best musicians recreating the Bakersfield sound.)
Photo by Dan Schram
The Original Five
Next up was the Merlefest Veterans jam, featuring the five members of the Merlefest family to perform at all twenty-nine editions. Joe Smothers, Jack Lawrence, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Peter Rowan all took to the stage to play together for an hour. "We're all here because we love Doc," said Bush before Peter Rowan added, "Doc was always a green light whenever we needed it." Later, John Oates, scheduled to perform later in the evening, joined. "Doc Watson was my hero growing up" he said, adding a bit of credibility to the statement by playing the Watson deep cut, "Spikedriver Blues."
On Saturday morning, I invited Rowan and Merlefest newcomer Doug Seegers to collaborate up on the hillside overlooking the festival grounds and pick a few tunes. Seegers, a former street musician who was essentially rediscovered by Swedish musician Jill Johnson, stepped off the golf cart and said, “How did I get so lucky to play with Peter Rowan?” He talked about seeing Rowan perform in San Francisco in the seventies. Andrew Marlin and Emily Frantz of Mandolin Orange joined the pair for a handful of songs, complete with overcast skies and ambient festival sounds. (See these cuts below.)
Next it was off to the Creekside stage for Tony Williamson’s “Mando Mania.” This year’s lineup included Sam Bush, Stephen Mougin, Tony Williamson, and Andrew Marlin, along with newcomer and Wilkes County native Jonah Horton. The fourteen-year-old Horton impressed the panel; Bush later noted that, between Horton and Marlin’s performances, “the future of the mandolin is strong.” Likewise, The Acoustic Kids Ambassadors showcase on the Cabin stage featured the impressive group Shadow Grass.
By my count, Bush played at least five times throughout the weekend. He finally stepped onto the Watson stage Saturday evening. “Sometimes I feel Doc and Merle flow through me when I’m on this stage” he said. “Doc loved this song, and he and I used to play it all the time. It’s written by Merle … Haggard." He kicked into “Working Man’s Blues.” Years ago, the festival teamed with Festivallink.net to produce live CDs of Merlefest performances. Walking into the Merlefest Mall after the set, I quickly located a Doc Watson live CD. Sure enough, the second track featured Doc performing “Workin’ Man Blues," with Bush on accompaniment just six years earlier.
Photo by Dr. Burns
Dave Rawlings Machine
Then, the rains came. Pop singer John Oates had been scheduled to play a thirty-minute, but he struggled as the downpour caused his mic to cut out. It was a mostly forgettable performance, anyway. The rain caused many in the crowd for headliner the Dave Rawlings Machine to flee. Those who hunkered down were rewarded with a rich, hits-heavy set. It wouldn’t be Merlefest without a dig at the vast number of reserved seats. During “I See Them All>This Land is Your Land," Rawlings improvised: “The sign was painted said, ‘Reserved seating only,’ but on the other side it didn’t say nothing. That side was made for you and me.”
For me, Merlefest ended on Sunday at the Traditional Stage with the “Women Who Sing and Play Traditional” performance with Carol Rifkin, Jeanette Queen, Laura Boosinger, Sarah McCombie, Emma Best, and the thirteen-year-old Ruth Shumway. The group shared songs, and Boosinger was clearly moved watching the young Shumway fiddle her way through “Jerusalem Ridge."
“Everyone that can, should encourage the young ones," Boosinger said. "That’s how the tradition is carried on."
The inspiring words continued shortly after with Peter Rowan holding court during his annual set at the Traditional Stage. He encouraged everyone to “go through this life with a blessed step. All we can do is be good to each other and carry that vision when we leave here."
As I turned back on to U.S. Highway 421, headed south toward home, I remembered those words.