Last weekend I drank from the bluegrass firehose. Wilkesboro, NC’s Merlefest is one of the US’s largest bluegrass and Americana music festivals, started back in 1987 by folk guitarist Doc Watson to honor his son Merle Watson.
All of the greats of bluegrass past and present have played here, from Sam Bush to Jerry Douglas to Peter Rowan and Tony Rice. This was my first visit, and certainly my first experience of a roots music festival of this scale and import. It’s heady stuff – a whole temporary community set up around a shared love for music.
Merlefest was a four-day festival. If I had gotten there just a day earlier, I might have seen James Taylor playing with the Transatlantic Sessions crew of American and Scottish/Irish musical maestros. I might have seen the Avett Brothers, or Del McCoury, or Tift Merritt. Yep. That’s how cool this festival is.
Fortunately, there was still plenty left for me to do and see in the world of Merlefest during my time there.
It turns out that thousands of people want to hear bluegrass and will tolerate being burnt to a crisp to do so. I figured this out pretty quickly when I got into the Wilkesboro Community College area where Merlefest takes place every year. This event was massive.
Here’s a quick glimpse at the crowds you might see wandering through Merlefest. I was struck by how many people of all different ages and of both genders were attending. Some people might pin bluegrass as skewed to older demographics. If that’s so, I didn’t see any evidence of it at Merlefest:
The first band I ran into was the Earls of Leicester, a Flatt and Scruggs tribute band that is no ordinary tribute band. With members like Shawn Camp, Charlie Cushman, Barry Bales, and Jerry Douglas, this is a group of elite bluegrassers who know what they’re doing.
After the Earls, I joined in on some of the jamming going on near the center of the festival. A few dozen people brought their guitars, mandolins, fiddles, dobros, bass(es?), and banjos to Merlefest. We found a way to use them on everything from traditional bluegrass songs to Lynyrd Skynyrd and Grateful Dead covers. Here’s a group playing a gospel tune called “Working on a Building.”
Pro tip: if you carry around a guitar case at a music festival, people automatically assume you’re with somebody’s band. It’s a good way to make serendipity work for you. In my case, I ended up getting a one-song gig with a troop of boy scouts just because I walked past their tent with a guitar.
Early in the afternoon I roamed to the edge of the camp for Mandomania, a stage full of some of bluegrass’s best mandolin players duking it out for supremacy. The one playing lead in this short sample is Sierra Hull:
After some more jamming in the tents with other bluegrassers, I stopped by to see banjo maestro Bela Fleck play a tune. NBD. You just expect to see the bluegrass gods descend to earth at holy places like Merlefest.
The epiphanies didn’t stop with Bela Fleck. His session was immediately followed with a workshop from the Transatlantic Sessions band led by Scottish fiddler Aly Bain and American dobro player Jerry Douglas. The collective of artists performed a Gaelic song and a Scotch-Irish immigrant country song that they laced with definite Celtic elements. These guys have been at it (“it” being a kickass cross-cultural music exchange) for around 30 years, and it shows:
On my way back to the main stage, I just happened to run into bluegrass guitar hero Bryan Sutton and a few other guitarists whose names I should probably know burning up a fiddle tune called “Billy in the Lowground.” Also NBD.
The music festival people say “hello.” Light, I love these people and this place.
Then I came to my ultimate destination: Sarah Jarosz on the Watson Theatre stage. First, I had to make myself comfortable. And they told me I’d regret lugging around my guitar all day.
Sarah Jarosz took the stage and – per usual – she promptly stole it. Here’s a snippet from one of my favorites of hers from 2013 album Build Me Up From Bones.
Toward the end of her set, Jarosz played “Coming Undone,” a song co-written with Parker Millsap (who is an insanely talented live performer, BTW). This one has a good thing or two to say about facing down a world that needs to change.
After the Sarah Jarosz set, I headed back to the Merlefest jamming tents to play some more bluegrass (and some techno-pop bluegrass covers) with a bunch of other young people and grizzled bluegrass veterans.
We went hard at it for hours, burning through everything from Doc Watson to Hank Williams to Pat Benatar. I surprised myself by holding my own in these jams, even if my singing was off-key and I forgot the lyrics.
I still had some time to burn before Merlefest’s legendary Midnight Jam, so I went over to the bluegrass dance tent. Yes, these things exist. And as Front Country proved, you jolly well can turn sad Carter Family folk ballads from the Depression era into dance pop songs. Not captured here: a grassed up version of Whitney Houston’s “I Wanna Dance With Somebody” that definitely got me loosened up and groovin.
At last. The time had come. A great NC-based band of youngsters called Mipso hosted the night – a series of collaborations, covers, and jams featuring members of bands like Della Mae, musicians like Sierra Hull and Bryan Sutton, and covers of songs like Springsteen’s “Atlantic City.”
This jam was one of the highlights of the night for me. Also, as it was 1 AM after a long day in the sun, it was also one of the last things I saw before heading out. I had to write about it that same night, so I used this one jam as my example of everything I love about bluegrass music.
The next day went by fast. Many other awesome things happened at Merlefest. You really just had to be there. Here are few other significant performances from the last day:
Bluegrass doesn’t forget. Bluegrass remembers. Merlefest 2017 closed a celebration of 30 years with a tribute to Doc and Merle Watson, both great guitar players and both reasons for this festival being a thing:
Want to hear more of the Americana sounds of Merlefest artists? Check out their Spotify playlist for 2017: