Thursday, April 3, 2008

Getting the Most from Merlefest - Preview

Watson Stage
What’s your roots music taste? Do you want to see old favorites, new discoveries, or some of each? Would you prefer to get your music in more or less intimate settings, or don’t you mind big crowds? Do you want it traditional or progressive, mountainy or rocky? Just about the only constant, and now-a-days not even that, at Merlefest is that it’s an acoustic music festival. Beyond that, it’s your choice. Merlefest, to be held in Wilkesboro, NC from April 24 – April 27 this year, is easily the largest festival held in the east by any standard. Daily attendance approaches 20,000. Thirteen different sound stages. Hundreds of performers. Dozens of vendors. Every camping space and motel/hotel room within fifty miles filled. The very top names in acoustic and bluegrass music performing. It’s all there at Merlefest. With all this size and diversity, the question arises, “How can I get the most out of my Merlefest experience?” This post is designed to help you do just that.

Gospel Jubilators on Cabin Stage

Planning - The best source for planning and managing your time at Merlefest remains the Merlefest web site. Once both a resource and a more-or-less open forum, the web site has changed in recent years, eliminating the lively message board it once carried. This has been, at least partially, replaced by The Unofficial Merlefest Forum, which provides for the discussion, but loses out because it hasn’t yet attracted the large group once posting at the Merlefest home site. Despite this loss, the official site of this great festival still provides most of the information you need in order to plan your four days in Wilkesboro.

Scene at Creekside Stage

Where to Stay – During our first four years at Merlefest, we stayed on campus in our trailer. Last year, when they raised the price, we migrated out to Fort Hamby on W. Kerr Scott Reservoir outside town. It worked for us. There are other campgrounds in the area, but by this time they are pretty well filled. The Merlefest web site gives a good overview of these. Unless you’re very lucky, you won’t find a motel room in the area, and if you do, it’ll be quite expensive. For next year, make your reservations early.

Doc Watson at Creekside

Seeing What You Want and Getting Around - Your first task, and do it today, is to download and print the Merlefest Schedule. Once you arrive at Merlefest, the pocket guide the festival provides will become your best friend, but until then you can use these Adobe PDF documents as a tool to guide your planning. The pocket guide will also be accompanied by a large, elaborate, and useful festival program describing all the performers as well as detailing the vendors and their locations. Until you get this booklet in your hands, the 2008 line-up will have to do. This listing has the advantage of providing links to most of the artists performing at Merlefest, allowing you to research them to your heart’s content and listen to samples of their music. Since one of the great joys of Merlefest is being introduced to new bands and sounds, this resource shouldn’t be overlooked. You can also find a festival map here. This recently updated map provides a much more accurate picture of the Wilkes Community College campus than earlier versions. The only missing element is a sense of the geography of the place, and this is important. At Merlefest you’ll do a lot of walking and climbing. The campus is quite hilly, the hills are steep, and two important stages (Walker Center and Hillside) require quite a hike. The final important resource is a list of stages. Click on stages on the Merlefest home page and you’ll be provided a list of each stage at the festival. Select each one and read about its focus. I’d prefer a more elaborate discussion, but combined with the map and the artists list, this link is helpful. Remember the reserve seating section at Watson Stage is open until 5:00 PM. Just go in and sit in an empty seat. If the owner returns, move somewhere else. Some people with strong bladders manage to stay inside into the evening, but once you leave, you won't get back. Once you have these resources in hand, you can begin to chart out a tentative schedule. But remember what Don Rigsby sang, “If you want to make God laugh, make a plan.”

Sam Bush's Annual Jam

Dressing for Merlefest is an important consideration. Remember a few things. It always rains at Merlefest. You won’t know when or how much, but count on rain. No matter how warm, sunny and pleasant the day is the evening is likely to be cool or even cold. The Watson Stage is set on a flat plain surrounded by steep hills. As the sun sets, cooling air begins to roll down from the hillsides and settle onto this main performance area. By nine or ten in the evening, everyone wishes they had more and warmer clothing. Bring several layers of clothes with you, including a fresh, dry, warm pair of socks. Remember that keeping your feet and head warm increases your chance of keeping the rest of you warm. As the evening progresses, layer up to stay warm. In the bottom of your pack, make sure you have a nylon shell to ward off dampness in either its drifting or falling form.

Reserve Seats at Watson Stage

Eating at Merlefest - A couple who have sat three rows in front of us ever since we began coming to Merlefest always carry a lot of food in with them. I suspect, in addition to hors d’oerves, they have the forbidden cocktails in a thermos. They carry fruit, salads…all they need for the day. Our seat neighbors always bring sandwiches as well as plenty of snacks with them. Both ways work well. We do some of that, too. However, we also believe in doing what we can to support the vendors at the festival. The massive food tent, to the left of the Watson Stage, offers a range of foods from hamburgers and hot dogs, through barbecue, to Thai, Italian, and Indian specialties. Meals are tasty and reasonably priced. There’s one problem: at meal times the lines are long and seats at the nearby tables are scarce. The best way to shorten your wait in line is to eat at off hours or during the performances of big headliners. You can hear from the food tent and see the huge television screen, and the lines seem to be shorter. Last year, several vendors of snack foods like hot dogs, hamburgers, and the ever popular funnel cakes were spread around the grounds. There were still long lines. I’ve been told that this year the festival has worked with vendors to increase efficiency and staffing at high traffic periods. They’ve also worked to make pick-up foods like hot dog, hamburgers, pizza, and ice-cream more available in high traffic areas. Coffee will be brewed on-campus making it more quickly available in larger quantities. Merlefest leadership is aware of the problems and has worked hard to alleviate them.

The Great Tut Taylor - Honoring the Pioneers

Chances to connect with band members are smaller, briefer, and less intimate than at typical festival settings. Merlefest is too large and complex for much meeting and greeting or shake and howdying. If you want to get to know members of a band, this isn’t the place, but you can say hi and get autographs either at scheduled signings at the entrance to the Watson Stage or get a chance for somewhat closer contact at the smaller stages spread about the campus. The map, the schedule, and the stage descriptions, taken together, will help you make these choices. It’s not as frequent at Merlefest as at other festivals to see band members around the grounds, but that happens sometimes, too. Often, however, they seem to be with friends and give off a vibe of preferring not to be interrupted.

The Little Pickers Tent
Instrument contests and the Chris Austin song writing contest are central elements of Merlefest. The recognition coming to a musician who wins an instrument contest or the visibility a songwriter gains from having a song sung from the cabin stage can serve as important boosts to a career. Contest winners get to sing their songs from the Cabin Stage on Saturday night, and it’s a pretty big deal. Sometimes you hear new songs that end up in major albums a year or so later. Lorraine Jordan had a song take second place a couple of years ago. Grasstowne selected “Devil’s Road” which Brink Brinkman won with for recording and performance. It’s a great showcase. Another feature of Merlefest is the organized jams happening almost every day. These jams bring musicians from different bands, but often with a musical affinity, together for an extended extemporaneous performance. Last year, at one point, the members of New Grass Revival were on stage at once for the first time in years. Such jams take place at a variety of stages. Another opportunity to see musicians jamming occurs at the area sponsored by the Wilkes Acoustic Society both during the festival and during the three evenings preceding it.

Earl Scruggs and Doc Watson on Stage
I thought maybe I’d put up a list of bands I particularly wanted to see and hear during Merlefest. I went through the 2008 Merlefest lineup, looked at my choices, and decided they were mine. Merlefest is actually 20,000 different festivals each day. As such, it’s up to each person who attends to decide who they want to see, and how much effort they want to make to see them. I showed the list to my wife and her concern was our ability to stay in touch when not at the same performance. Lots of people carry walkie talkies. I recommend not bringing them and relying on cell phones instead. There are just too many people clogging up too few channels to make the family radios very good communications tools. Be sure, however, to keep your cell phone on vibrate so your ring tone doesn’t bother others.

Evening Jam on Watson Stage
In the end Doc Watson and his friends established and maintain the spirit of Merlefest. The festival is a celebration of his son Eddie Merle, but it’s a recognition of Doc’s accomplishments, his taste, and his friends. As long as that remains, the festival will continue to be one of the great musical events in America. Doc’s spirit pervades the entire event.

Annual Sand Sculpture
For a different perspective focused on specific musicians and coming from a somewhat differently nuanced place, read Derek Halsey’s Merlefest Preview here.

Merlefest's Heart - Doc Watson