Willie Nelson Kicks Off MerleFest Jamming With Sam Bush

Country superstar says he'd like to cut a bluegrass record; his next one, due in June, is all blues.

WILKESBORO, N.C. — Country superstar Willie Nelson took the Americana route Thursday night, leading a packed crowd at MerleFest's Watson Stage on a two-hour road trip of his hits.

"I just narrowed it down to about 40 or 50," the music veteran replied when asked how he decided which songs to play for the diverse crowd of baby boomers, gen-Xers and a large contingent of latter-day Deadheads who'd been to see String Cheese Incident play the same stage earlier in the evening.

Nelson kicked off his set with "Whiskey River" (which he would reprise later in the evening) and followed with a smorgasbord of his well-known tunes, including "On The Road Again," "Angel Flying Too Close to the Ground," "My Heroes Have Always Been Cowboys" (RealAudio excerpt), and, reaching to the country-blues side of his style, a medley of "Crazy" and "Nightlife."

One of the reasons he wanted to play the four-day MerleFest, Nelson said later, was that he enjoyed all the great pickers. One world-class one in particular, mandolinist Sam Bush, stepped onstage to join Nelson for "Uncloudy Day" and, with the audience singing along at Nelson's invitation, "Amazing Grace."

Giving his band a break, Nelson, dressed in black jeans and shirt and wearing his trademark tennis shoes, stood in the spotlight alone to perform several songs, including "Seven Spanish Angels" (RealAudio excerpt), his hit duet with Ray Charles.

The evening wound down with Nelson offering a tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt with "Pancho and Lefty" (RealAudio excerpt) and following up with several more of his hits. After the show, the country legend gladly mingled with fans and signed autographs for a long line of well-wishers, including many other artists who played the festival.

Nelson, who has a blues album due in August, said he likes the Americana format and would love to do a bluegrass album sometime. "I know a bunch of bluegrass tunes," he said.

Music Breaks Out Everywhere

Spontaneous jams, both on- and offstage, always are a highlight of MerleFest, and one of those occurred earlier Thursday evening at the Watson Stage when songwriter Darrell Scott began his set with the title track and other songs from his new solo album, Family Tree. He was then joined by Tim O'Brien, his collaborator on the current Howdy Skies release, Real Time.

Banjo player Scott Vestal stepped in, as did vocalist John Cowan. "It's always a blast to play with Darrell," Cowan said later, " I love his stuff, and I know most of it, but you have to watch him — he'll get out there and start jamming, changing keys and doing different stuff. Darrell's always on, always puts the maximum into his music."

On the other stages — there were a half-dozen of them at MerleFest — fans could choose from, among other things, a children's set by the Tish Hinojosa Band and a blues guitar workshop with Jorma Kaukonen and Roy Book Binder.

Cloudy skies and rain slowed things down a bit Friday morning at the festival, but performers and fans alike knew that having this much musical talent in one place was too rare an event to let rain dampen their spirits.

Friday's main stage schedule included the Freight Hoppers, Maura O'Connell, Chesapeake, Laurie Lewis and Her Bluegrass Pals, Tony Rice and Nanci Griffith and the Blue Moon Orchestra, as well as the "Girls for Merle" jam with Rhonda Vincent, Laurie Lewis, Alison Brown, Sally Van Meter, Missy Raines and Claire Lynch.

Meanwhile, fans and players took advantage of the chance to hear and learn from some of the greatest acoustic talent around at the more intimate smaller stages.

Fans, Artists Learn From Workshops

Workshops in topics ranging from fiddle playing style to vocal techniques to old-time dance kept those venues hopping when formal concerts weren't on the schedule.

"You never know what's going to happen, what questions people will ask," Grammy-winning fiddler and songwriter Lewis said. "And you get to play with people you wouldn't usually perform with."

Artists enjoy attending the workshops, too — Alison Krauss, Suzanne Cox and O'Connell, for instance, were noted in the overflow crowd listening to Peter Rowan and Hinojosa share their ideas on singing techniques at one such workshop at a previous MerleFest.

The Chris Austin songwriting contest and mandolin, guitar and banjo contests were in full swing, too.

Bluegrass Grammy nominee Lynch knew her plan: "I'm looking forward to the songwriter workshops as much as any part of my performances at the festival. Songwriting is evolving into my first love, musically speaking."

California-based bluegrasser Kathy Kallick, who shared her songs at the festival several years ago, summed up the openness of those stages and workshops. "I'm a songwriter," she said, "so that much of what I do is by definition not traditional — it's new. At this festival, songwriters are free to present our music as we'd like. We don't have to tailor it to fit a particular style or theme."

Saturday's main stage lineup included Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Cowan, the Alison Brown Quartet, Claire Lynch and the Front Porch String Band, Nickel Creek, Natalie MacMaster and Rowan.

On Sunday, O'Brien and Scott, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings and Hinojosa's band were among those who appeared. The evening concluded with a tribute to John Hartford, featuring Hartford himself and an all-star gathering of musicians from the festival's four days.

First-time attendee Phil Aaberg, a classically trained pianist who's played rock, country, and bluegrass and who records with NewGrange, was keeping his expectations in check — and his tongue in cheek.

"I am looking forward to playing with NewGrange," he said. "I once played for my cousin's wedding. MerleFest should be better than that."