Monday, May 2, 2011

Merlefest 2011 - Sunday & Final Assessment

Once again, we'd like to thank our friends Bobbie and Ken Glass, owners of the Dine 'n' Dash on Collegiate Drive in Wilkesboro for the hospitality, warmth, and good food.  Stopping at Dine 'n' Dash for breakfast during Merlefest and to post my blog each morning has become a part of our Wilkesboro ritual.  If you live in or visit Wilkesboro, it's the place to go for breakfast, lunch, or a light supper. 

Sunday at Merlefest often begins in a leisurely, relaxed fashion before it begins to build towards a bang-up closing act in the late afternoon.  Yesterdays Sunday combined all that is best about Merlefest - reverence for tradition, a great set by Doc Watson and The Nashville Bluegrass Band, strong shows on the Watson stage, and a rousing closer that kept a large crowd on campus until 5:00 P.M.  Though many people don't return early to campus for Sunday morning since they're still recuperating from the excitement of the Midnight Jam, a large crowd always seems to find its way to Creekside to hear Doc sing.


Reminding the audience of his eighty-eight years years, Doc spoke of his deep faith. Still mourning the loss of his son Merle and now facing the reality of his beloved Rosa Lee  being in a nursing home, he suggested that he was ready, and this might be his last Merlefest.  The grief was clear on his face and in his voice, while the love and respect coming from the audience was palpable. More than a few tears were shed. 

Roland White

Alan O'Bryant

Alison Brown Quartet

Alison Brown is clearly one of the finest banjo players in the world, having moved the banjo into the world of jazz with a deftness that gives new meaning to both.  I would have been happy to provide many more pictures of her and her fine band here, but, unfortunately, Creekside is perhaps the worst photo venue at Merlefest, being fatally back-lit.  This year, by parking a huge, white trailer behind the stage, the festival managed to make it even worse.  Since we spend significant parts of our Merlefest  at Creekside, it's particularly sad for us, but in the larger scheme of things, the background is difficult to see into as well as to photograph for everyone. 

Green Grass Cloggers and the Corklickers

The Tone Blazers

Tara Nevins Looking On

The Infamous Stringdusters

The Infamous Stringdusters presented an extremely strong set that showed why they are spreading their wings way beyond the bluegrass festival circuit where they started only a few years ago.  Their music, strongly rooted in bluegrass as well as expanding into the jam band world, has huge appeal to a variety of audiences.  Their Watson stage show exemplified all the reasons they are being welcomed by new audiences and still treasured by their original ones.

 Jesse Cobb
Andy Falco

Chris Pandolfi
Travis Book
Jeremy Garrett
Andy Hall

Russ Jordan - Emcee

Jim Lauderdale
Tim O'Brien Band

Tim O'Brien remains one of the most important voices and composers in roots, folk, and bluegrass music.  When he shows up at a festival with a band as strong as this one, it's a sure bet that good sparks will fly.  It's impossible for O'Brien to leave the stage without leaving the audience screaming for more.  

Mike Bub

Stuart Duncan

Brian Sutton

Tim O'Brien

Maura Shawn Scanlin
Seat Mate for Nine Years

Robert Plant and the Band of Joy

When a big rock star or country star appears at Merlefest, security often tightens and the place feels less warm and welcoming.  Too bad, because the chances of Robert Plant being rushed at the stage are pretty small at Merlefest.  Even so, the welcome was warm and the performance very strong.  It didn't hurt that two members of the band were Merlefest veterans.  I'm not familiar with Led Zeppelin's work or history, but the music was strong and held a large crowd 'til the very end. Plant's second encore was the fittingly chosen "Your Long Journey" written by Doc and Rosa Lee Watson, sung with auto-harp accompaniment by Buddy Miller...touching and beautiful.

Robert Plant

Darrell Scott

Patti Griffin and Darrell Scott

Buddy Miller

 Marco Giovino

It's All Over for Another Year

Photo by John Adair

Photo by John Adair

Final Assessment

According to a Merlefest press release, attendance at Merlefest 2011 exceeded 80,000 people counting all people coming through the gates during the four days.  The lineup was filled with strengths and offered something to satisfy nearly all tastes.  A few things we noticed were the absence of major bands featuring female singers or principals (with the exception of Donna the Buffalo) on the main stage as well as acts fronted by black artists.  There were plenty of new performers and a good many of the combinations from different bands and eras Merlefest is noted for.  We were particularly pleased to see Tut Taylor receiving the recognition he has long deserved as an important innovator in roots and acoustic music.  The Southern Filibuster set at Walker Center and the John Hartford set on the Watson stage were important milestones.

Tut Taylor

We're used to being surprised by at least some of the bands we are introduced to at Merlefest.  We found fewer of these this year than in other years. Nevertheless, significant buzz reached our ears about performances by Sarah Jarosz, The Wailin' Jennies, and Red Molly.  Add to these groups Crooked Still, stronger now than when we last saw them with the addition of Brittany Haas and Tristan Claridge.  All four of these bands feature exceptional women as core members of the band. 

The biggest disappointment for us was, as I wrote earlier, was the main stage lineup on Friday night.  Four completely plugged in, very loud bands playing music with almost no hint of melody in it was too much for us. We found ourselves leaving early, and were surrounded by other people headed the same way.  On the other hand, both Saturday and Sunday were hugely satisfying days.  Add to that the weather, which after a scare on Wednesday night, was clear and warm during the day and chilly, but not cold, at night.  We both look forward to Merlefest 2012, which will be the twenty-fifth anniversary of this historic and important music festival. 


  1. Fine job, Ted, today and throughout M-fest. I sure hope it wasn't Doc's finale, but if so, what a legacy. We who have been privileged to hear his music will never forget the man nor the music. But let's think positively. Thanks again for the pics and text.

  2. I wonder who is now the producer of this surely million-dollar event, and where do the profits go?


  3. So far as I understand it, the show is produced by a committee made up of Wilkes Community College Faculty and Staff. Merlefest is a 501 (c)(3) non-profit charity and all proceeds go to Wilkes Community College. Over the years, millions of dollars have gone to help build and expand the college. I believe most of this information can be found on the Merlefest web site.

  4. .....and in case you're wondering, Ted, just who in the world "Creadick" is, it's the name of a granddaughter who signs in to Google but doesn't sign out!

  5. I agree that Friday night was loud, but I also thought Robert Plant was loud. I stayed until the end each night, but had to cover my ears on some of Robert Plant's numbers.

  6. I agree that Friday night was loud, but was no louder than Robert Plant.

  7. Thank you for the great pictures and comments. We have decided that the sound crews have lost their hearing and the audience isn't far behind! Some groups were extremely loud, especially the base. So much so, that it distorted the music and ear protection didn't help! The decibel reading must have been at a dangerous level. Our hearing is precious and many headed for the exit as it was very uncomfortable.

  8. Ted, I am so impressed by your work with this blog, and the photos are of special interest. I need to hire you for some digital photography instruction, because I can never get such amazing stuff at Merlefest. Perhaps my laziness has something to do with that, but I would at least treat you to coffee and a great meal in Aiken, SC, for a few pointers. BTW, the Aiken Bluegrass Festival runs May 12 and 14 in this beautiful city.