Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Merlefest 2009 - Preview


I’ve been reading in the forums that some people are disappointed with the Merlefest lineup for this year. Others complain about changes in the format and environment of this huge and musically comprehensive event. They say it doesn’t communicate the intimate, warm, special remembrance for Eddie Merle Watson that dominated its early years. Well, I have news for you. Things change! Merlefest has become THE mega-festival held in the east and among the most important in the country. Somewhere in the neighborhood of 75 to 80 thousand people attend in one way or another over the four days. At any given time, there may be fifteen to twenty thousand people on the grounds. But at the same time, the people who organize and run this huge event go to great lengths to maintain some of the original intent while presenting the best in (mostly) acoustic music and Americana to a crowd that’s having a great time. There are lots of large and small traditional bluegrass festivals. There’s only one Merlefest. Let’s take a closer look at the complaints and the lineup while seeking to address some of the complaints.

Cabin Stage and Reserved Seating

The Cabin Stage offers entertainment between
Watson Stage shows

I’ve heard complaints that Merlefest is too buttoned down, that participants can’t sneak alcohol or weed past the security folks at the gate. First, I can’t honestly say I haven’t seen people drunk or smelled marijuana on the grounds at Merlefest, but drunkenness is rare and so is disorderly behavior. Those of us who prefer to enjoy the music without chemical enhancement can only applaud. Considering the number of people on the Wilkes Community College campus at any given time, the crowd is pretty mellow. After six years of attending, we find we know lots of people there and enjoy seeing them year after year. Not having to deal with out of control drunks who’ve lost their social awareness increases the enjoyment of most people there.

Carolina Chocolate Drops at the Americana Stage

Another complaint about Merlefest is that it’s difficult to make contact with the artists. Those of us who attend bluegrass festivals have become spoiled by the easy accessibility of musicians to their audience at these events. Bluegrass musicians meet and greet their fans at merchandise tables conveniently located near the stage area. They usually spend sufficient time there to chat with anyone who wants to talk to them as well as to sell and sign CDs and pictures. At other times, they circulate around the grounds and appear happy to share their time. At Merlefest the sale of CD’s and band memorabilia is handled through a tent managed by the local Rotary Club with a hefty $3.00 added to the usual price of each one. This assures that artists will get their usual price and Rotary important work will be supported. In fact, complaints about Merlefest being “about the money” suggest that supporting local charities and the efforts of the College are less than worthwhile. On the contrary, Merlefest stands as the single biggest fund raiser for local charities in the Wilkesboro area, providing major support for many worthy recipients. The days of the $30.00 festival with major headliners are long gone. With the exception of the Watson (main) Stage, artists are, at least, briefly available after performances at most stages before being whisked off by golf cart to their next performance. Incidentally, most performers at Merlefest appear at several venues and are kept busy on their days there. Main stage performers meet and greet fans at autograph tables. The time of their appearance is well-advertised. While there are sometimes huge lines, often artists have plenty of time to chat with well-wishers.

David Holt at Creekside Jam

Tim O'Brien with Infamous Stringdusters at Creekside

Jack Lawrence, Itinerant Guitarist

Joe Thompson Will Appear at Austin Stage

For people who have been complaining that Merlefest isn’t a bluegrass festival any longer, the lineup has to shut them up pretty quickly. From traditional bluegrass bands to top entertaining bands, to cutting edge progressive bands, Merlefest covers most of the bluegrass world. Doc Watson, of course, Darin and Brooke Aldridge Quintet, Bearfoot, Blue Highway, Sam Bush, Cadillac Sky, John Cowan, Dailey & Vincent, The Dixie Bee-Liners, The Farewell Drifters, The Gibson Brothers, The Grascals, EmmyLou Harris, Sierra Hull & Highway 111, The Kruger Brothers, Jim Lauderdale,…..and on and on and on. If you can’t find plenty of music that fits your definition of bluegrass at Merlefest, you’re just not looking. If you want to hear other kinds of music (blues, jazz, southern rock) generally characterized these days as Americana, there’s more there than one person can possibly take in. Merlefest requires choices, but there’s plenty there for almost any taste. Merlefest was our first festival. It cemented in our minds a concept of what Americana and bluegrass can be and introduced us to more fine musicians than we’ve ever heard together at any other single event. We often attend other festivals to hear again people we were introduced to at Merlefest.

Sierra Hull

For Children of All Ages

Merlefest goes out of its way to make the event not just “family friendly” but “child friendly.” The Little Pickers tent offers music by and for young people. A number of performers making appearances on other stages also present a kids oriented program at Little Pickers. A highlight will be “Little Mo” McCoury on Friday. Sierra Hull & Highway 111, a fine bluegrass band composed of players, most of whom are still in their teens, shows what talent and application can lead to. Buffalo Barfield presents a country humor act with a kids’ orientation and lots of different kinds of music. The Alberti Flea Circus harkens back to a performance from the nineteenth century. Check out the schedule for this stage to see what other attractions will be there. It’s a delight for children of all ages. In addition, lots of kids perform there during the weekend. Host Andy May emcees performances by the Youth Showcase on Friday and Saturday afternoon. Many are regulars whom we’ve watched grow in skill as they move through childhood. The Little Pickers tent is a place to see the vitality and promise of young bluegrass performers as well as the versatility of people you admire in other venues. Seating is designed to fit the intended audience.

Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas at

Sam Bush Jam

There’s a tradition at bluegrass festivals of bringing musicians from different bands together in new and surprising ways on stage. At Merlefest this tradition finds perhaps its highest form. An example of this sort of combining can be found in the New Generation Super Jam on Saturday Afternoon. Running from 10:45 until 12:15 on the Watson Stage, a group of young, progressive bluegrass bands will perform in a Jam. Hosts are The Steeldrivers and The Bellville Outfit with The Dixie Bee-Liners, The Farewell Drifters, and Cadillac Sky. All of these bands will also be performing at other stages at other times and days. Mando Mania is a different kind of jam. Held on Saturday afternoon at the Creekside Stage, this mandolin extravaganza brings together some of the best mandolin players at the festival. This year, host Tony Williamson will welcome Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Alex Johnstone, Rebecca Lovell, Mike Compton, and Darin Aldridge. This is always an exciting hour of collaborative and sometimes competitive mandolin picking at the highest level. Look for other collaborative jams on the schedule. If you’re interested in seeing progressive or jam bands strut their stuff, the Hillside Stage on Friday and Saturday afternoons is the place to be. No one who was there two years ago will forget the moment when members of an early version of the New Grass Revival assembled for a couple of tunes during the jam hosted by Sam Bush on Saturday evening. Pete Wernick will be hosting a jam at the Americana stage to exemplify the ideas of his Flexigrass band.

Sam Bush Jam

Del & Sam

Doc Watson Jam

Eric and Leigh Gibson to Make Merlefest Debut

Brooke Justice Aldridge

There will be some highlights that we’re particularly looking forward to. A high point for us will be The Gibson Brothers making their first appearance at Merlefest. About to release a new album on a new label, this group has had four straight #1 CDs on the Bluegrass Unlimited charts. Not easily characterized, they combine bluegrass with classic country and rock influences in tight brother harmonies with a terrific supporting band. They always put on a first class performance. For some reason the Kruger Brothers, a world class home town band from Wilkesboro, have been absent from Merlefest for two or three years. Jens Kruger plays such great banjo he exists in another world from even the rest of the best. The Krugers have been doing a limited tour with their new bluegrass band, including Adam Steffey on mandolin and Bobby Hicks on fiddle. I haven’t yet been able to determine what conformation of the Kruger Brothers will appear, but however they show up, they’ll be playing great music. On another note, The Darin & Brooke Aldridge Quintet will be performing with George Hamilton IV at the Creekside Stage on Sunday. Recently married, this duo features Darin Aldridge, who’s one of the top young mandolin pickers, and Brooke Aldridge’s very powerful singing backed by a strong band. They’ll be part of the Creekside Gospel Sunday events. Darin can also be seen with The Circuit Riders on several others occasions at the festival. We’re also looking forward to seeing The Greencards, David Holt, Josh Goforth, The Del McCoury Band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, John Cowan, and Pete & Joan Wernick with a Flexigrass-like jam band. As usual, I’m not sure how we’ll get around to see all the people we want to see in four days. One way will be to not make time to see, for instance, Dailey & Vincent, who we like and enjoy, because we know they’re on our schedule later in the summer. The combo band of Jerry Douglas and Travis Tritt on Saturday night should be a real treat. One of the effects of Merlefest is to introduce us to new bands. Missy Raines and the New Hip fits in this category for us. We don’t know what other new discoveries we’ll make.

Mr. and Mrs. Tut Taylor with Friend Mike Palmer

Pre-Festival Jamming

Uwe Kruger & Steve Kilby Jam with Friends
And there’s still more. Like blues…the small and lovely Austin Stage will be offering “The Greatest Acoustic Blues Show on Earth” from noon until 5:45 on Saturday afternoon. Want to learn more about your instrument? Check out the workshops at the Mayes Pit. Dying to pick with Sierra Hull or Cadillac Sky? Bring your instrument to the Pickin’ Place. Incidentally, there’s practically non-stop jamming going on in these tents hosted by the Wilkes Acoustic Folk Society, a local music organization that also hosts jams on Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday evening before Merlefest begins. You might run into Tut Taylor there, or the Kruger Brothers as well as a bunch of very good local pickers. A year or so ago, the Lovell sisters showed up there and jammed for a couple of hours. It’s great fun! On the Plaza there’s an open mic hosted by Tut Taylor, at 85 still a creative and personal force. The Walker Center provides an indoor stage where top Merlefest guests perform all weekend long. And then there’s the famous Saturday night midnight jam. Don’t forget, too, the Dance Stage and the Traditional Tent, which I haven’t even mentioned. And the vendors, the food, the exhibition tent, the Merlefest Mall. In short, Merlefest has more to offer than any person in his right mind can take in during the four days the event runs. In a week or two I’ll post a piece giving my advice on how to manage your time at Merlefest. Here’s a final word. It’s never too early to download the stage schedule to start making your own program.

Jamming Workshop with Pete & Joan Wernick

Mando Mania
Rebecca Lovell
Jerry Douglas

Sam Bush

Merlefest 2009 runs from April 23 - April 26 in Wilkesboro, North Carolina on the Campus of Wilkes Community College. Tickets may be purchased on line from the Merlefest box office. Usually, here is also a lively on line exchange, sometimes at discount prices. Accomodations are hard to find this late, but some places that are usually full may have spaces in this economy. There are plenty of choices for campers. The Merlefest web site provides lots of useful information and is worth your spending a good deal of time studying. Merlefest can and should be a highly enjoyable experience. Whether you make it so depends entirely on you...and the weather.
Doc Watson


  1. Ted,

    A great preview of this huge event.

    I just love Doc. It's like Wayne Benson says, "When Doc sings, I believe every word." So do I.

    I have been to every Merle Fest but one. It is is big now, and I don't go to Merle Fest and expect to sit down and jam with the performers. There are just too may people there for it to operate that way. And with those kind of crowds, you have to be vigilant about security or else... well, us old timers hated to see Union Grove go by the wayside.

    For the most part bluegrass is a small town where we can all shake and howdy. I love that about it but I am glad to see my friends get one event in the big time lights. Many of them struggle to survive, and anything that improves their lot in life is good by me.

    One time I stood in line a half hour or so at Merle Fest to shake hands with Sam Bush. I have met him before, and even know him a little. I just wanted to add that to my list of Merle Fest things done.

    When I got there, I had him sign a pack of strings. (I still have it)

    "Sam," I said. "This is a bigger gig than 'Green Acres' huh?"

    He smiled. "Yeah, Doc. It is."

    "Keep on rocking brother."

    "Will do." He signed the pack and handed them back. "Green Acres. All right."

    The next person handed him a T-shirt. I moved on down the line. It was good to see that many folks line up to meet a mandolin guy.

    Ted, thanks for what you do for bluegrass, and for the events both big and small. I am friends with a number of the bands, and they appreciate the exposure. Bluegrass will never see too much press. I am going to look you up at Merle Fest.

    Dr. Tom Bibey

  2. You nailed it, Ted, and with great pics, too.

    This will be #16 MerleFest for us, and even though it's changed (just like we have!) it still feels like "coming home" when we walk on the campus. The "powers that be" are now in their second generation, and they're continuing the tradition that began with the stage on a flat bed truck.

    I'll be spending most of my time in the Traditional tent, but there are over a dozen other places to visit for some wonderful music.

    Merlefest is...well...Merlefest. It's unique. Thanks for a great post, and we'll see you there!

    Parson Bob