Wednesday, April 11, 2007

How to Survive Merlefest

Merlefest!! For music lovers of a certain type, the name raises hopes and challenges the imagination. Ask someone along the festival trail if they’ve ever been to Merlefest and more often than not you get a response that suggests wonder, a little fear, concern about the crowds, concern about the expense, eagerness to attend. More people have heard about Merlefest than have attended it. Merlefest 2007 will be our fifth consecutive Merlefest. It represents the single most expensive and engaging week in our entertainment calendar. Each year we are introduced to musicians we have never heard of or never seen and reunited with some of our favorites. Unlike smaller, more intimate and informal festivals we attend, there is much less opportunity to interact with the performers. You don’t get a chance to hang out with people artists you’d like to know better. All that being the case, we still purchase our tickets the day they go on sale and plan our travel year around Merlefest.

First established in 1988 as a memorial to the legendary Doc Watson’s son Merle, who had been killed in a tractor accident the year before, Merlefest started as a modest event on a flatbed trailer with some bales of hay thrown around for people to sit on. Merle’s friends, friends like Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Tim O’Brian, T. Michael Coleman, John Cowan, and many others came together to sing and pick in memory of Merle. Now, twenty years later 80,000 admissions (average of a little over 20,000 per day) show up to hear the icons of Americana music, enjoy the scene, and depending on where they stay, to jam ‘til all hours. If 20,000 people are on campus at Wilkes Community College at any one time, there are probably 20,000 different Merlefests. Let’s see if we can bring some sense into how to get the most out of this mammoth festival.

Merlefest is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC in the foothills of the Appalachian range of mountains. It is held the last weekend in April. Weather conditions in the hills are unreliable. It can be quite hot in the sunshine or cold and raw. One thing is almost certain, evenings at the main stage, the Watson stage, can be really cold. Come prepared each day for a full range of temperature and wetness. The college campus is hilly and the twelve sound stages are located all over campus. Hillside is at the top of the campus, but at the bottom of a steep hill providing excellent seating for viewers. Creekside stage is behind the main stage along a creek. It, too, accommodates large crowds and important concerts are scheduled there. The main stage, Watson, dominates the campus. It dominates the flat lower part of the main campus with its sixty rows of reserved seats and a seemingly endless grass field behind them where those without reserved seats set up what become almost camp sites.

Merlefest and Wilkes Community College are serious about alcohol and drugs on campus and security is tight. People at every gate you come through inspect carry-in backpacks, purses, camera bags, and such. They’re looking for alcohol and drugs and very little gets through. In our years of attending this festival, we’ve seen almost no drunks and have seldom smelled the aroma of weed. This leads some people to complain about too many rules and intrusive security. Some people complain the Merlefest is a “police state.” The best way to keep from feeling injured is to obey the rules. The net effect for those attending the festival is that people are well-behaved and young parents don’t have to explain other people’s behavior to their kids. Every day this campus becomes a large community of music lovers who can enjoy themselves without having their enjoyment intruded on by drunks and stoners.

Don’t let the reserved seats intimidate you. Until five in the afternoon, all seats in the reserved section of Watson stage are open to anyone who wishes to sit in them, unless the owners of the seat claim them, whereupon, users just move to another seat. Some people, with strong bladders, have been known to enter the reserved area around 4:00 in the afternoon and, by nimbly changing seats, stay until the evening ends. Of course, if they leave to eat or relieve themselves, they can’t get back in. Reserve seats for new subscribers go on sale around November 1st. We got our by going on-line the minute the box office opened, asking for best available seats, and scored in the twentieth row. We intend to keep our seats and leave them to our children in our wills.

If you’re going to Merlefest to get your fill, assuming that’s possible, of a specific band like Donna the Buffalo, Blue Highway, or Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, or you name it, you’ll need to be prepared to move about the campus. Performers move from Hillside to Creekside, to Walker Center (a lovely indoor theater), to the Ameriana stage, to Watson Stage and you’ll need to move with them. The other alternative is to restrict your movement, enlarge your interests, and wait for your favorite bands to come to you. There are other stages for people with specific interests. The Traditional Stage features a variety of traditional bluegrass, old-time music, hymn singing with shaped notes, and clogging. The Austin Stage, a small stage shoehorned in between two classroom buildings under cool trees is an intimate place where you can hear lots of blues. Choose your poison and you’re likely to find it at Merlefest.

Merlefest is the major fund raising event for every community group in Wilkes County. Under one long tent a range of foods from Pad Thai to barbecued chicken is available. You can order a full meal or a hot dog. You can have a funnel cake if you haven’t had enough of them elsewhere, or you can avoid them and eat healthy. Eating well and happily is, as usual, a matter of timing. To avoid horrendous lines at the food booths, eat away from meal times. Eat lunch at ten or two, dinner at four or seven and you’ll find seats and not wait in line too long. But remember, these food booths are important to the community and you’ll know you’ve supported worthy causes rather than small time traveling entrepreneurs.

Vendors, vendors everywhere, but they’re only where you want them to be and you have to go to them to take advantage of what they have to offer. This year the vendors’ village has been moved to create more green space. I have no idea what that means, but it suggests that you’ll have to do more walking to get to the dozens of independent vendors hawking everything from tie-dies to instruments, stained glass to wooden bowls, juggling kits to jump ropes. There’s lots of choice, and while you will find the usual pre-packaged Chinese imports you see at other festivals and flea markets, careful shopping can net you some interesting and unusual purchases.

Three other shopping venues add to the opportunities. The craft tent has juried crafts people selling a variety of high quality crafts including hand made boots, brooms and brushes, several kinds of wonderful bowls, hand made instruments, and other choices. It’s worth a walk through this tent just to appreciate the art. We’ve bought several turned burl bowls through the years and treasure them at home. The music tent sells CDs and other merchandise from all artists appearing at the festival. This tent is sponsored by the Wilkes County Chamber of Commerce and they add a hefty $3.00 charge to the usual $15.00 you pay to support musicians at other festivals. Furthermore, your opportunities to get the CDs signed are limited as there are long lines and short appearances by the artists. Sometimes you get lucky. Finally, there’s a sales tent on the path between the Watson Stage and the Creekside stage which you shouldn’t miss. This tent is where the major instrument manufacturers show their wares and allow you to demo them to your heart’s content. Deering, Ome, Nechville, First Quality Music and other manufacturers have booths. Just outside, Gibson has a large trailer. It’s like being let loose in a chocolate factory.

Accommodations in Wilkesboro offer several choices. Almost all motel rooms are spoken four years in advance and at exorbitant prices. There are several campgrounds available. Closest to the campus is River’s Edge where there is tent camping and round the clock jamming. Another place well-know for jamming and having places for larger RVs is a camp ground near the city’s water purification plant and dubbed “Sewer Fest.” People who stay there love it. The Kerr Reservoir west of town is a Corp of Engineers impoundment with a number of campgrounds around it. The Merlefest web site describes the various venues and you can get more information from the bulletin board on the Merlefest site. At one time there was a large parking lot and hillside on campus that was used for camping at a cost of $150 per site. This space has been reduced and the price increased to $400 dollars without any hookups. The best way is to either show up at River’s Edge or make your reservations early. I gather the scene at River’s Edge is loose and friendly. The younger crowd which inhabits this area seems to enjoy it a lot. Us older folks prefer something more tame.

There’s lots more – a place to take a much needed nap in the shade; a massage tent; Alberti’s flea circus; the Little Pickers tent for kids; jammers tents; a display of raptors; sand sculpture; and a garden of meditation in memory of Merle Watson, which brings us back to where we started. At any venue you’re likely to see and hear Doc Watson, the legendary blind mountain folk song singer who came to prominence at folk festivals in the sixties and continues to sing and pick like a wizard at age 83. The spirit of Doc Watson pervades this wonderful festival. You’ll leave on Sunday afternoon exhausted and exhilarated and waiting for next April to come around.