Monday, April 30, 2012

Merlefest 2012 - Overview & Farewell

 The Crowd for Alison Krauss - Sunday PM


It's with a good deal of sadness, and maybe a little bit of relief, that for the last time we walked away from the Merlefest closing late Sunday afternoon. This was our tenth year at Merlefest, a short time compared to the hundreds of others who've come since the beginning. (I sometimes think there were five or six thousand people at the first event, considering how many people tell us they've been there since the beginning.) We  watched the festival grow while changing its focus from big and acoustic to increasingly huge, loud, and electric. Volume increases as the evenings wear on, and we find the night performances less and less to our taste. I've often said and written that if there are 20,000 people on campus, there are 20,000 different Merlefests, and this is as it should be. However, when the balance shifts to the point where we head back to our trailer before dark, it suggests that maybe we should be looking in other directions.

When I began writing this blog, I had little idea what it would grow into. We were attending lots of bluegrass events as well as some other musical genres. I wanted to combine my long term love of writing and lifetime habit of doing photography with the new world of the blog, an approach to private journalism that gives everyone an opportunity to express themselves. Beyond my wildest dreams, people came to read what I had to say and see the photographs I posted. They also have stayed to read my essays, book reviews, and occasional rants. This has all been very gratifying, while being enjoyable, too. As the blog has developed, several foci have emerged which seem to characterize its current state. It's also changed from being "my" blog into a joint project we both contribute to. So what and in what direction have the purposes of the blog evolved?

It's our goal to inform other people about the world of bluegrass music where we spend so much of our lives. We hope that this work (for work it surely is) serves to open the world of bluegrass to others the way it has opened for us and welcomed us in.  We both enjoy featuring profiles and pictures of working musicians, always presenting sidemen along with the "stars."  Finally, I'm eager to continue building and increasing the outreach of what's become a popularly recognized vehicle for entertainment and information. We've decided these efforts are better focused on featuring events which can benefit from our efforts and which recognize our contribution to their success. Merlefest has consistently reduced our access to the places that make both photography and personal contact (the stuff of this blog) possible, apparently not recognizing any benefit to them from our efforts. And who can tell? What we know is that smaller festivals see benefits growing from what we do for them. Over the past few days, I've been surprised at the number of people who approach me, and increasingly Irene, even when we're not together, to thank us for what we do. Yesterday, an elderly former teacher came up to us to tell us how much my preview had contributed to their enjoyment of their first Merlefest. Others, fans, professional musicians and family members, have stopped one or both of us to say how much they enjoy the coverage. So, we're sad to be leaving Merlefest, but filled with the friends we've made, the music we've heard, and the experiences we've had.

Now...on with some coverage of the highlights of our Merlefest, beginning with Friday.

Breakfast at the Dine 'n' Dash 
with owners
Ken and Bobby Glass

Vendors Row
Dancin' Dave Doin' His Thing

Tut Taylor signed this rare Album for a Fan

Kruger, Nash, Warner Jam
at Hillside Stage

 James Nash
Jens Kruger

Kym Warner

Audience at Hillside

The Great Tut Taylor
Flat Pickin' Dobro Man

We attended the Chris Austin song writing contest for the first time this year. Twelve finalists divided into four categories each sang one song, chosen from over 1000 entries this year by a committee of professional song writers.  Louisa Brancscomb's song "Stormy Night" won the bluegrass category and Shannon Slaughter won the country division with his song "I've Hit Everything But My Knees." Molly Tuttle won the general category with her song "Walden" and Mandy Radford won the gospel/inspirational division.

Louisa Branscomb & Jeanette Williams
Singing "Stormy Night
Shannon Slaughter sings
"I've Hit Everything but My Knees"

Instrument Contest Winners
Banjo - Brandon Green
Guitar - Ben Cockman

At the Watson Stage
Darrell Scott & Friends

Darrell Scott
Luke Bulla

Patrick Simmons

John Cowan

Bela Fleck & the Flecktones

Bela Fleck and the Original Flecktones concluded their current tour at this year's Merlefest. I often have difficulty sitting through some of Fleck's sets, but found this one lively and enjoyable.  Lots of fun and interesting music.

Bela Fleck

Victor Wooten

Bela Fleck & Futureman (Roy Wooten)


 Jonathan Levy

Check out the lines....

The Sam Bush Band

Steven Mougin (MoJo)
Scott Vestal
Derek Trucks (Guest) & Parks

Home to bed. More tomorrow.


  1. I for one am so sorry that you and Irene will not be back at Merlefest, getting to see and talk to you both had become one of my highlights of the festival!
    Dwight Burks

  2. Ted your thoughts are part of the reason our crew has lost interest in ROMP. Go over to Sam's blog and read his Steve Martin comments from last June.

    As for the songwriters competition, go Shannon and Louisa. Had a nice visit with Shannon a couple weeks ago at the Lou Reid show. I'm also close with Brennen Leigh who's based in Austin.

  3. Ted, as Jan already said, that's why I'm not planning to return to the IBMM's ROMP festival in Owensboro, KY, any time soon. After six years of watching the festival grow, it finally morphed into something that is not at all worth driving a 2000-mile round trip to experience. I was frustrated and angry for much of the 2011 festival and that still has me sad.

  4. I've heard very recently that music festivals are broadening up thier genre choice to appeal to the younger set, the Radical grassers are drowning out the Traditionalists. there are too many stages @ certain Festival sites that I may find too overwhelming.

  5. Joan - I don't think "radical grassers" is quite the right word. There are bluegrass musicians who seek to develop and extend the genre as the early pioneers defined it by adding a more contemporary resonance. Music will also seek (and find) newer and younger audiences. I only hope we can meet on common ground where tolerance for differences and understanding can be rewarded by a broader, more accepting spirit.

  6. This comment has been removed by the author.

  7. Yes, if someone in the younger generation does not step up to the plate the traditonal form of bluegrass as we know it will be a lost art. Most of the players today are mechanical and do not put any heart and soul into their music and most sound alike.

  8. I can only say..."your loss". THe festival grows every year and hopefully will continue to appeal to the masses...of our little Bluegrass wold! I have been turned on to many artists that I would never have had interest in had it not been for the expanding landscape at Merlefest!

  9. Thanks, Redsgirl. As I said in today's post, and in my preview, if there are 20,000 people on campus there are 20,000 different Merlefests. We, too, have been introduced to more bands we like than we can count. We go out of our way to see many of them in our travels. The problem of volume is a serious one for people who don't want to damage their ears. Other issues are real, too. Nevertheless, I generally agree that change is necessary and some of it actually contributes to developing the course of bluegrass and other musical genres.

  10. Ted,
    It saddens me that you are "throwing your hat in" so to speak, i've always enjoyed your blog and your wonderful pictures. Your support of all that comes under the umbrella of Bluegrass has been meaningful and helpful to those of us who, even on the periphery of this beautiful music, have tried to make an honest living at. I don't agree at all about the younger generation of bluegrass artists (not your take, someone else here). What I see are great young bands steeped in the tradition of Mr Monroe, Flatt & Scruggs etc. I consider Balsam Ridge, New Town, The Steep Canyon Rangers, The Infamous String Dusters, even Daily & Vincent, The Greencards, & The Punch Brothers to be young bands. I can't personally explain the treatment you recieved this year @ Merle but I am sorry for it.
    kindest regards,
    John Cowan

  11. @Redsergal, it may be Ted's loss, but it's also a loss for his readers who, like myself, are unable to attend Merlefest. His pictures and perspectives are an enjoyable window into that world that I will miss.