Tuesday, April 14, 2009

How to Enjoy Merlefest

Doc Watson

The Watson (Main) Stage
Merlefest is a large festival focusing on the broad range of Americana music. It spreads out across the hilly Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC with fourteen performance venues. It’s absolutely impossible to see every band you want to see in all of their performances. It’s difficult even to see all the bands you want to take in. More than any other event we attend, Merlefest requires attendees to make choices. Your best guides to finding your way around can be found in the Merlefest web site. The web site is big, too, and requires some navigating. I’ll give you specific links to places on the web site that can provide significant help to your planning efforts and to understanding how the festival works. If you don’t do your homework, your first half day at the festival will be dedicated to getting oriented rather than listening to music or taking advantage of all the other activities provided at this great event.

Audience Set up for a Rainy Day

Reserved Seats from Watson Stage
Rules: The general rules governing Merlefest can be found here. While these kinds of rules may be familiar to you from other festivals, you should note that at Merlefest they MEAN them! The bag checks look specifically for any container that might have alcohol in it. Drugs are out! Pets are not allowed on the grounds. If possible, leave your pets at home. Pets left in the campgrounds while you’re away all day may suffer seriously from the heat. Otherwise, the rules of the festival reflect consideration for your fellow attendees and the needs of the performers. They present no burden to anyone attending the festival with good will. Your best bet is to read this Merlefest Information sheet carefully and to abide by the rules.

Watching the Show from the Food Tent

Infamous Stringduster at the Cabin Stage

Getting Around: The shuttle buses from the free parking lots to the main gate run frequently. At the end of the evening’s shows there’s quite a line to get on a bus, otherwise, transportation to and from your parking lot is quick and efficient. Note that local scout organizations run the buses and the tip jar provides contributions to these organizations.

The Merlefest Map gives you a good overview of the campus, but tends to underestimate the distances between venues and doesn’t suggest the hills you must climb to get to venues like the Austin Stage, Walker Center and Hillside. You should come prepared with good walking shoes that permit you to walk a lot. Don’t plan, for instance, to catch The Grascals on Friday afternoon at Creekside and then run up to Hillside for Donna the Buffalo because it’s crowded and you can’t run no matter how good shape you’re in. While it’s not necessary to choose a particular venue and stay there all day, some changes are easier than others. We tend to see most of our shows at Watson, Creekside, and Americana, but our friends the Gibson Brothers will make their debut at Hillside on Sunday afternoon, so we’ll journey up there. This leads us to another very important aid. The daily stage schedules are available here. Download them now, print them out, and study them to help you map out your day. Most of the performers at Merlefest have their own web sites and MySpace pages. You can find links to them here. Check them out, and listen to some of their music to see whether you want to hear more. Information about the artists is also available in the festival program, which you’ll pick up when you enter the grounds, but waiting until then means you’ll have to study on the run. In the past, Merlefest has published a handy pocket guide, but last year it wasn’t available. Hopefully they will have returned to it this year, as not providing it encouraged attendees to take multiple copies of the entire program in order to get eight pages of schedule. However, bringing your schedule printouts will pay dividends. Most bands appear at more than one venue, so if you can’t see them one place, you’ll be able to catch them somewhere else. As I’ve said, you have to make choices at Merlefest.

Alberti Flea Circus Little Pickers Area

Mid-size Little Pickers
Audience at Little Pickers

Activities for Kids: Merlefest is determined to remain a family event. Significant resources are devoted to making sure that plenty of activities and music are provided for children in the Little Pickers Area. Many of the activities are ongoing, some, like the Alberti Flea Circus, a gem of pure delight for young and old alike, are scheduled several times each day. This year, lots of bands will be performing children’s sets in the Little Picker’s Tent. Sierra Hull & Highway 111, Josh Goforth & Laura Boosinger, The Dixie Beeliners, and Little Mo McCoury are just examples. The Little Picker’s Tent is also the place to see young up-and-coming children make some of their earliest stage appearances. If you go to hear them this year, a decade from now you may be able to say, “I saw her play the fiddle when she was ten years old, and I knew, even then, she was destined for greatness.” If all this activity seems exhausting to you, and it can be, stop by the R&R tent for a brief rest. It’s a good place to grab a quick nap, get a massage, or just sit quietly for a few minutes. It’s close enough to the Watson stage so you can listen to music while resting.
The Shoppes at Merlefest (Vendors Row)

Banjo.com Booth
Shopping: There’s lots of shopping at Merlefest, and it’s of remarkably high quality. The Exposition tent has booths for major instrument manufacturers and gear purveyors. Deering, Nechville, First Quality Music (Disclosure: I bought my first two banjos, a Deering Goodtime and a Sullivan Festival from these folks at Merlefest at good prices), and many others have displays there. You can always find pickers trying out instruments; musicians who endorse these manufacturers are often available there. It’s located along the path from the Watson Stage to Creekside, just beside the large food tent. Gibson usually has a trailer behind the Expo tent on the way to Creekside. The Merlefest Mall is staffed by the local Rotary club and sells CDs provided by all the bands and performers. It also sells instructional DVDs, t-shirts, and other band memorabilia. A $3.00 surcharge is added to all purchases made here as a donation to the Rotary Club. The Shoppes at Merlefest offer a wide variety of clothes, art, toys, and crafts, as well as instruments. Banjo.com, for instance, has a booth here as do a number of smaller builders and vendors. (Disclosure: I bought my Deering banjo from these very fine people at their store near Atlanta.) Nearby the Heritage Crafts tent can be found. Here you’ll find higher end crafts that have been admitted on a juried basis. The Merlefest Gift Shop, offering festival memorabilia of all kinds, sits at the head of the Shoppes area.

Jam at Creekside Stage

Audience at Creekside

Back Stage at Creekside
Performers for Mando Mania (You Name Them)

Mando Mania
Food: You won’t find the sort of commercial food vendors at Merlefest you’re accustomed to if you attend music festivals on a regular basis. The primary food tent, beside the Watson stage, offers wholesome meals ready to eat. Individual areas under the tents provide barbecue pork and chicken, Thai platters, Italian specialties, soda and candy, coffee and rolls, other foods. These booths are provided by various campus and area organizations (WCC students, Baptist Church, local elementary school) and represent a major fund raiser for them. Food is wholesome and generally tasty. The problem is that this area is usually crowded and always mobbed during dinner breaks. On the other hand, service is pretty efficient. Last year, the longest line I waited in took me nine minutes. The best way to eat here is to dine in off hours. Other food vendors have been scattered around the campus with snacks, gourmet coffee, hamburgers and hot dogs, ice cream, and, in the little picker’s area, even funnel cakes. Many people bring coolers with the day’s food into the festival with them and set up a sort-of base camp where they can eat, give their kids a rest, and so-on. Remember, if you bring a cooler, it will be opened and inspected for alcohol and drugs. A couple who sit a few rows in front of us usually have what looks like gourmet salads and snacks with them at their reserved seats in the Watson stage area.

David Holt, Doc Watson & T. Michael Coleman
at Americana Stage

Audience at Americana Stage
What to Wear: There’s one thing you can count on at Merlefest besides great music: variable weather. In our six years of attending Merlefest, we’ve never avoided rain for four whole days. At the same time, we’ve usually had at least a couple of hot sunny days. The problem with clear weather and low humidity comes when it gets dark and the chill air cascades off the surrounding hills into the valley where the Watson stage is. The temperature drops, the humidity rises, and it gets cold. The best way to prepare for the weather at Merlefest is to be prepared to layer up. Start with shorts and a t-shirt in the morning, but bring a fleece and a rain suit along. Fresh, dry socks, and a cap in your pack will help you to keep warm into the evening. Oh, and bring the sun block. If you’re lucky, the weather will be warm, humid, and slightly overcast. This allows for pleasant, shirtsleeve evenings.

Line for "Facilities"

Toilet Facilities: When we began attending Merlefest in 2003, large masses of porta-potties were provided. As the years have passed, the festival has begun offering increasingly elaborate portable toilet facilities with flush toilets, bowls for washing hands, and air-conditioning. While these fancy toilets are divided equally into men’s and women’s entrances, the lines are not equal at all. Women seem to prefer the privacy and cleanliness of these facilities, and they tend to have lines snaking out of the doors. Access for men is usually quite fast. Traditional porta-potties are conveniently distributed around the grounds, and are kept quite clean and odor free through frequent pumping and spraying down. Some of the buildings where there are contests and performances have regular, sparkling, tiles bath rooms. Sometimes they aren’t too crowded.

Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society
Sponsors Jams Before and During Merlefest

Tuesday Evening pre-Festival Jams
Seating at Merlefest: The Watson stage is the only place where there’s reserved seating at a premium price. Don’t be intimidated by the vast sea of green reserved seats. Many people have kept reserved seats for years, and value them highly. Nevertheless, before 5:00 PM, all seating is open. It is understood that if the owners show up at their seats, squatters need to move on, but there are almost always good seats available during the day. People with strong bladders can come in before 5:00 and maybe be lucky enough to get and keep seating, but if you leave the area, you will not be able to return. All other performance areas have open seating, but getting a good seat at them should be built into your plan. For instance, The Waybacks, a very popular California band, will be appearing at the Walker Center, an indoor theater venue, at 11:45 on Saturday morning following the Nashville Bluegrass Band. Unless you want to see both, you’d better be at the door by 11:30, because the room will fill very quickly. If you stay for My Friend Merle which is an enjoyable set of music and reminiscence with the likes of Doc Watson, Sam Bush, John Cowan, David Holt and T. Michael Coleman, the intervening half hour would be a good time to catch a nap in a comfortable setting. While some seats are provided at many of the outdoor venues, we carry small folding chairs with us to set up in front of the Americana, Creekside, and Hillside stages. Large bag-style chairs won’t work. The general rule is: If you want good seats, plan on getting to a venue early. If you want to pack in lots of performances in different venues, plan on watching from a distance and spending a lot of time on your feet.

How to Jam with Pete and Joan Wernick
Other Activities: There are plenty of other activities to divert attendees. Workshops with some of your favorite musicians will be held in Mayes Pit. Fiddle with Jessica Lovell, learn about the bass from T. Michael Coleman and Byron House, explore banjo and fiddle with Stuart Duncan and Alan O’Bryant, Cajun music with BeauSoliel, Dobro with Megan Lovell, Mike Witcher, and Tut Taylor – and that’s just a few hours on Saturday. The Traditional Tent features kids clogging as well as old timers. On Sunday morning there’s shaped note hymn singing in the old style. People entranced by the roots of roots music can spend all their time in the traditional tent. Do you want to perform? Go to the Plaza Open Mic and see Tut Taylor about a time to get your chance at the microphone. Want to Jam? The Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society sponsors three tents where there’s jamming all weekend, including with top bands like The Farewell Drifters, The Dixie Beeliners, and Sierra Hull & Highway 111. (Note: If you bring your instrument to pick or jam and then decide you’re tired of carrying it around, there’s an instrument check provided. Don’t risk losing a valuable instrument by leaving it lying around. The Merlefest crowd is generally honest and quite well-behaved, but you really shouldn’t tempt fate.) There will be a series of hands on workshops in The Lounge in Alumni Hall, including a “Learn to Jam” workshop with Dr. Banjo (Pete Wernick) and his wife Joan on Saturday afternoon. Check out other topics and hosts in the Lounge. If it’s very hot or raining outside, this is also a good place to go to get out of the weather. There’s lots more, so study the schedule carefully.

Circuit Riders at The Lounge

The Lounge Audience
Summary: In the end, Merlefest is about the music, celebrating the life of Eddy Merle Watson, and Doc Watson. Many performers who were friends of Merle have performed at Merlefest since the first festival held on a truck bed with bales of hay thrown around for seating in 1988. Many fans have been here since the first festival, too. Over the years, they’ve seen the informal small event started to build a memorial garden to Eddy Merle Watson on the campus grow into a mega-festival. The changes have changed the nature of the event, but not the spirit, if you care to be a part of it. The singing of the song “Ode to Merle,” the frequent appearances of Doc Watson around the campus, jams dedicated to Merle’s memory, and more all contribute to this spirit. Singing the “Ode to Merle” at the festival’s late on Sunday afternoon provides a fitting end to a festival that stands as a highlight in many people’s music schedule. Come prepared to enjoy this great event, and you will.

Girls for Merle Jam

Sam Bush Jam

And Always - Doc