Merlefest is roughly 20,000 different festivals. There’s such of variety of offerings on the thirteen sound stages that attendees can build their own festival to suit their needs and preferences. It is truly a great festival. That being said, Merlefest is undergoing a series of changes in how it presents itself and trying to define what it wants to be. During two of the four days of the festival the
In order to try to make the festival fit and in seeking to provide greater green space and maintain a sense of openness, festival organizers this year spread the various amenities and facilities around the grounds. The effects of this, as one might suppose, turned out to be both positive and negative. There was a great deal more walking than in the past. The vendors’ area, now dubbed The Shoppes at Merlefest was spread out further and we had to make a special effort to walk through it. One of the tents we usually visit is the Heritage Crafts tent. This tent features regional crafts people, many actually working on their craft at the festival. Because it was moved so far away from the main stage (Watson), we couldn’t find time to get over to it to walk through. In recent years we have nearly always found something in this tent to purchase four ourselves or as a gift. There seemed to be fewer vendors this year, but this might be a perception due to the dispersion of the vendors. The Merlefest Mall, where artists CDs and other memorabilia are sold still stood squarely in the midst of the traffic pattern, encouraging people to enter and buy CDs. Operated by the Chamber of Commerce, a $3.00 premium is added to the price of each item.
Food this year was also somewhat more dispersed. The main food tent, where local civic organizations and schools offer a broad variety of meals and snacks, was, if anything, somewhat improved this year. It was not, however, enlarged. On Friday and Saturday from shortly afternoon until well after dinner time, lines were long and slow. It became difficult to get a meal without a significant wait in line. If you were lucky enough to get food and enjoy it, the area across the road where the portable toilets are located has been reduced in size. Two air-conditioned trailers were put in place, making it possible for the squeamish to use flush toilets, but building impossibly long waits, especially at the women’s door. The number of conventional porta-potties was reduced by, at a guess, two thirds, leading to long lines there, too. Now it may be that there was actually no reduction in the number of facilities provided throughout the grounds, but many were in out of the way places and in small numbers, meaning that the lines there increased also. One of the joys of Merlefest has been that throughout the festival you could count on plenty of porta-potties and know that they would be frequently cleaned. The staff has continued the cleaning policy, but placement was an issue commented on by many people I shared lines with.
It’s worth saying a word about the sound. At the subsidiary stages, sound was up to the usual high standard expected at Merlefest. We attended events at the Creekside Stage and the Americana Stage as well as the main Watson Stage. At Creekside and
While they work out the kinds, Merlefest still provided a wonderful musical experience. This year was the twentieth anniversary of the first small event held in 1988 in remembrance of Merle Watson, who was tragically killed in a tractor accident in 1985. Friends of Merle’s, who had played with him in his band Frosty Morn and with Doc Watson held the stage, playing and reminiscing about Merle. Sam Bush hosted a jam on Saturday evening featuring Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Peter Rowan, John Cowan, Bela Fleck, Pat Flynn, and more. Suddenly, the crowd began to realize that all the former members of the New Grass Revival were on stage at the same time just as the jam on stage broke into one of their songs. It’s been twenty years since this band has performed together. Another
Those wishing to hear a wider variety of music could luxuriate in Elvis Costello, Pam Tillis, The Duhks, Darrell Scott, Crooked Still, Tuobab Krewe, Uncle Earl, Robinella, Roy Bookbinder, the Gospel Jubilators and more. This festival offers more in
Merlefest is huge – too big to encapsulate in a single review. Give it a try and see if it fits your idea of how you want to experience music. For us, despite the crowds and its expense, it is a festival we look forward to every year and leave tired, but satisfied that we’ve heard lots of the best American music has to offer.
Thanks to the folks at Savannah Lakes Resort & Marina in McCormick, SC for the use of their broadband facilities. This is a beautiful site if you're ever in the area. We're here for the Lewis Family Fesitval this weekend.