Every year Wilkes Community College hosts MerleFest, one of the biggest and reputedly the best bluegrass music festival in the USA. There are several dozen stages playing for four days. The show was founded 27 years ago in honor of the legendary flat picking guitarist and mellow vocalist Doc Watson, and his recently deceased son and band mate Merle. I have been supervising the Kiwanis food booth, selling Philly cheese steak sandwiches and apple desserts, for 17 years. I love the energy and excitement and am happy to do the work in exchange for a four day pass to the show.
When I started attending this festival I was only vaguely familiar with bluegrass music, and not particularly a fan. But here the music variety is far wider than pure bluegrass. The multitude of MerleFest stages showcase Cajun Zydeco, Celtic, cowboy yodeling, gospel, blues and many other styles. At past shows I have encountered extremely talented and entertaining bands, whose albums have become among my all-time favorites – including Leahy, Steve Riley and the Mamou Playboys, and Scythian.
Music festivals, especially those in your home town, are great places to socialize and mingle. Every day I see dozens of persons who I know and we get to chat awhile. I also have some personal friends, including some of my tennis buddies, who are in bands that perform at MerleFest: the Bank Notes and the Tone Blazers.
This year I made many memories that I will treasure for years:
At the Creekside stage I was watching an All Star Jam performing a tribute to the recently deceased Doc Watson, by playing a set of his favorite songs. The performers – like Sam Bush on the mandolin, David Holt on the guitar and others – were among the best in the business. They were individually listed on the schedule and named by the stage announcer at the beginning of the show. The stage crew took a long time setting up each player with two microphones – one each for voice and instrument. But there happened to be no banjo player in the lineup. Then, unannounced, one of the best banjo players in the world, Pete Wernick, wandered into the bank of the tent, carrying his instrument. Standing in the back, without a microphone, he started playing. Then, during the middle of song, he pushed his way to the front of the stage, took over a microphone and played a solo lead, without missing a beat! Then he left the stage. Absolutely phenomenal! These guys are talented!
At our Kiwanis food booth I had many enlightening conversations with my fellow Kiwanians and co-workers. I was astounded to learn that one Kiwanian is taking an eight person family vacation to Nevada this summer to attend a gun academy. There they will learn how to handle a pistol in self-defense. Another Kiwanian has recently performed the astounding feat of going to Grand Teton National Park and, with a guide, climbing the 15,000 foot Grand Teton Mountain! That climb is not an accomplishment for amateurs!
On the main Watson stage, I was introduced to my musical discovery for the year. A band, not new to the music industry, but new to me, is Old Crow Medicine Show. They are known for their hit song “Wagon Wheel” several years ago. I had never heard them perform live. This show was a volcano of energy. Most bands have one, or at most two, members who are the most talented and take the limelight. Every member of Old Crow Medicine Show is supremely talented, and none of them are shy about showcasing it. They all repeatedly took lead solos and showboated around the stage. I would rank this show as one of the five best performances I have seen in my life.
Another talented performer was the young girl mandolin player for country music star Alan Jackson. He recently recorded a bluegrass album. All but one of his band members performed on the album. But Alan’s original mandolin player recently developed a conflict and could not attend MerleFest. Alan hired this young girl who learned the mandolin parts at the last minute and appeared with him at this show. But she was not content to simply play in the shadows of the other band members. She had learned her parts so well that she repeatedly took leads and played solos on most of the songs. Talented!
Another typical MerleFest experience, that I repeated many times this year, was to randomly wander up to a stage and listen to some, to me, unknown little band, like Junior Sisk & Ramblers Choice. But everybody at this show is a somebody. Many times this unknown band had members who had won Grammy or International Bluegrass Music Association awards as, for example the best fiddle player, or banjo player, or vocal performer of the year, or whatever. Talented!
Another neat experience was to attend a show at the American stage, lay in the grass with my head pillowed by my daypack, and listen to world class music while staring at the intensely blue sky, or semi-snoozing in the sun.
A great advantage of visiting the Dance Stage tent is the ability to get right up next to a great band, like the Jeff Little Trio, and be so close as to feel the sweat they sling off as they soar through their music. [Okay, ladies, that last item may be a little too much information…]
The Hillside stage is often reserved for the jam bands, like Donna the Buffalo or the Waybacks, who like to crank up the volume and pound out their heavy duty music. I love to sit among the trees on the hillside and feel the bass instrument part vibrating in my chest.
Another enjoyable sensation is to drive into, or leave, the campus playing the local radio station 90.9 WSIF in my truck, which broadcasts whatever is playing on the Watson stage. Of course, whatever is playing on the Watson stage is boomed across the entire campus on nearly a hundred huge speakers. Then I can roll down my window and have the disjointed experience of hearing the same performance from two sources at the same time, the live sound delayed about 1 second after the radio broadcast.
Every time I go to MerleFest, I am reminded that it is a family affair. About 15 years ago, late Sunday afternoon, I was dismantling the Kiwanis booth. The cook had set aside a small box of cooked but unsold sandwiches. The lead singer of Donna the Buffalo walked up behind the tent and asked if we had any leftover food. I said yes, 7 sandwiches, that will be $35. He said he had no money. I commented that I recognized him from performing on the main stage that afternoon. He said yes, but they would not get paid until about a week later. Right now, he had several hungry band mates and their children in their bus. I gave him the food. A while later, as I lugged my money box across campus to my truck parked at the top of the hill beside the Walker Center, I passed Donna the Buffalo’s bus sitting beside Thompson Hall. Inside I could see the band and their kids happily noshing on Kiwanis sandwiches.
See you at the show next year!