Each year during the last week of April, the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., in the foothills of the Great Smoky Mountains, transforms itself into a gathering place for acoustic musicians of all backgrounds.
From the progressive bluegrass of Sam Bush and Laurie Lewis to the country styles of Willie Nelson and Nanci Griffith, from Keith Franks' zydeco to the Cape Breton fiddling of Natalie MacMaster and the Southwestern border lyrics of Tish Hinojosa, they're all at MerleFest, which is marking its 13th season.
Legendary multi-instrumentalist Doc Watson helped start the festival as a tribute to his son and musical partner Merle, who died in an accident in 1986.
Doc Watson's appetite for diverse forms of music, both in what he plays and in what he listens to, guides the range of talent participating in the event. Peter Rowan, who has been part of the MerleFest lineup for a number of years, pointed out that "Doc encourages the freedom of acoustic and related musics. Artists are allowed, even encouraged, to push outside the boundaries of traditional string-band music."
Watson is active in reviewing artists' materials and tapes as the acts are being scheduled, and is a presence during the festival, too, presenting his own sets on the mainstage, hosting jam sessions and soaking up the music.
Guitar player and mandolinist Charley Groth relates: "Jan Milner and I were part of an all-Florida set one year. We played several songs featuring lap dulcimer, mandolin and guitar. We left the stage enjoying the audience response and feeling really good about what we'd done.
"There, in the backstage area, we were surprised to find Doc Watson himself sitting in a chair in the area immediately behind where we'd been playing! He'd been listening to our music and spent a few minutes with us."
Country and bluegrass star Janis Gill had a moving experience with Doc as well. While playing "Deep River Blues," which she had learned as a child from Watson's recordings (RealAudio excerpt of Watson version), Gill was astonished to notice Watson in her audience. Later, when he came backstage and offered to show her a few licks on the guitar, "Janis was so overcome, she had tears in her eyes," recalled her sister, Kristine Arnold, who performs with Gill as the duo Sweethearts of the Rodeo. "That," Gill said, "was one of the highlights of my life."
MerleFest Makes It To The Web
More than 30,000 fans will make the trek to the Carolina foothills for the four-day fest this year, and even those who can't make it to the festival gates can take part. More than two dozen performers will present music workshops in area schools, several artists will perform at Wilkes County nursing homes and, for the first time, some of the concerts are being broadcast by subscription over the Web by acousticboxoffice.com.
The lineup for Thursday night included mainstage performances by Watson, Dixie Dawn, IIIrd Tyme Out, Keith Frank and the Solieau Zydeco Band, String Cheese Incident and country superstar Nelson.
That eclectic lineup gives way to a Friday mainstage schedule including the Freight Hoppers, Maura O'Connell, Chesapeake, Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals, Tony Rice, Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra and others.
Some of the "others" include: Grammy-nominated banjo player and Compass Records founder Alison Brown, who said that on Friday (April 28) night, "I'm in a special set with five other women called 'Girls for Merle' that includes Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis and Claire Lynch. The set was [festival promoter] B Townes' idea, and I'm really looking forward to playing with such great singers and players!"
Lynch is looking forward to it too. "The 'Girls for Merle' have been woodshedding at home," she says.
"We'll meet for a couple of rehearsals before our Friday night show. I think it'll be fun, and I have great confidence in everyone ... should be an interesting show."
'The Audience Is Primo'
Saturday's mainstage lineup includes John Cowan, the Alison Brown Quartet, Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band, Nickel Creek, MacMaster and Rowan.
Sunday, Tim O'Brien and Darrell Scott, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and the Tish Hinojosa Band are among those set to appear. The evening will conclude with a tribute to John Hartford, featuring Hartford himself and an all-star gathering of musicians from the festival.
"It's a picture-perfect day here. There's clouds around but now it's clear and in the 60s," said Byron McMurry, whose bluegrass acoustic fusion band, Acoustic Syndicate, played Thursday night.
In addition to performing with her own quartet, Alison Brown will be busy playing with the acoustic supergroup NewGrange and participating in workshops. But what she's really looking forward to is "getting to hear a lot of my favorite musicians. I've played the festival a couple of times in the past, but the last time was probably eight years ago. I've heard it has really grown," Brown said. "With that many acoustic music fans in one place, I'm sure it will be really exciting."
Claire Lynch agreed. "It's one of the biggest Americana music happenings in the Southeastern U.S. I'm so glad to be a part this year!
What's it like to play at MerleFest? Well, it's been over five years ... but as I remember, it's spread out, and crowded ... and the audience is primo. I'm sure I'll enjoy every minute of it!"