Audience at Grascals Late Afternoon Set
Emcee Cindy Baucom with Terry Baucom and Jamie Dailey
Despite claims from Merlefest’s publicist, it appeared to me that attendance was down considerably, at least if that judgment is made from the number of people in the reserved seats at the Watson Stage or the crowd across the lawn behind them. On the other hand, stages like Creekside, Hillside, and Americana seemed crowded for many of the bands appearing during the day. Since we’re cutting back by buying less food, no CDs, no t-shirts, and no raffle tickets, I didn’t spend as much time at those venues as I have in previous years. Nevertheless, there were never lines at the raffle tables, and the food lines seemed short or non-existent. The Expo tent, where high end instruments and gear are sold, seemed relatively un-crowded. I guess we’ll have to wait until the final report to learn about attendance. When those figures come, however, remember that they don’t represent paid attendance, but count nearly every person who comes onto the grounds each day.
Doc Watson Arrives at the Festival - Thursday
Behind Creekside Stage
I was also disappointed by Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt on Thursday’s closing. Peter Rowan mailed in his performance, not even caring enough about his audience to have his band know the words. (I've been told by both Pete Wernick, who I deeply respect, and Jody Stecher, who plays mandolin in the Rowan Bluegrass Band as well as on other Rowan projects, that I haven't been completely fair to Mr. Rowan. Stechler has suggested that maybe it's just that I don't like his music, and maybe he's right. I'm happy to withdraw my comment and to apologize to the Rowan band. Difficulties with the sound system may have contributed to what I thought I saw. I'll leave the rest of my reaction to taste and lack of sufficient background to appreciate what Peter Rowan does.) Dailey & Vincent gave their usual high quality show, but Merlefest may not be their venue. Emmylou Harris, preceding Sam Bush on Saturday drew a good crowd, but seemed a bit tired. Her songs are pretty lugubrious and all seem to be in the same tempo and, perhaps, key. She was followed by Sam Bush, who always revs up the audience, but in order to fill the seats in the reserved seat area, emcee Martin Anderson had to invite people seated in the general admission area to move forward, an unusual move, as these seats are usually closed to general admission at 5:00 PM. The best evening performance came on Friday evening when Mountain Heart with the great Tony Rice led off the evening followed by the Del McCoury Band. In recent years, Del has sung songs from his newest recordings before taking requests. This informality and flexibility of this approach charms and attracts an audience.
In sum, Merlefest is large, crowded, expensive, and consistently entertaining. It seems to be at its best when it combines startling new and ground breaking acts with tried and true performers who are familiar to the diverse crowd. As I look back on the four days just past as well as trying to put our seven years of attendance at Merlefest into some perspective, I continue to see it as one of the most satisfying musical experiences we encounter during the year. We always get to hear bands we’ve never heard before, see performers we’ve heard about but never seen, and re-visit musical greats from the near and not so near past. Over the entire experience, the spirit and generosity of Doc Watson still pervades, but his body and voice are now weakened and we can only wish him well. We can also wish that his vision and openness to the new and different along with his respect for the tried and traditional can still co-exist at Merlefest.