Often when I get back from Merlefest, people ask me, “How was it?” Lately, just to be different, I’ve taken to saying, “Sheer hell.” They look at me funny, then I say, “Yeah, there’s too much great music, and all these great musicians to be around, and to top it off, the weather this year was perfect. And did I mention, the agony of being in North Carolina in the height of springtime!”
Well, after attending my 13th Merlefest (only missed the first year), I want something a little unusual to say! Every year Merlefest grows bigger in attendance and levels of amazing musical diversity. In truth, the biggest problem is to have to miss so many good things going on right nearby, — 13 stages run throughout daytime hours.
Without trying to describe Merlefest in all its many facets (for that sort of thing, just try their web site, www.merlefest.org), I’ll just give a few glimpses of interesting things I got to do.
Let’s start with the Bluegrass Jam Camp. I know of no better way to warm up for the festival than to get a whole bunch of people together and play music for four days. We had 28 campers altogether, the most ever, and the widest age-range 9 to “mid-70’s”. People came from 14 different states, New York to California. About half were returnees from previous years, for a bit of a “reunion” feeling — but there were also some flat-out novices, for whom the camp is specifically designed. The first morning, everyone was picking and singing, in five small groups, and by the end we had quite a repertoire. We finished the week playing “In the Pines” to the main stage festival audience, with 3 fiddles in harmony and everyone joining in on the 3-part harmony vocals! Special thanks to multi-instrumentalist Andy Owens, who assisted me ably in coaching the jam groups.
On to the festival itself: For me, the theme of this year’s Merlefest was “Donna the Buffalo”. I played two sets with them using my plug-in Prucha banjo (“Sounds like a banjo”). DTB is a great, cooking rock band from the Ithaca/Trumansburg area of upstate New York, where I lived from 1970-76. The musicians are all experienced old-time music players, but DTB is all about funky rock ‘n roll grooves that just won’t quit, and first-rate singing and writing. This is the third year I’ve gotten to play with them, and this time I decided tostudy their material in advance, so I could anticipate things better, instead of faking it while listening for chord changes. So I charted out a bunch of their songs, and proudly showed some of the band members that I’d done some homework. They just said I should make copies for them so they could finally learn the songs!
One specialty of Merlefest is putting together combinations of players that normally don’t perform together. A few years back at the Winterhawk festival, I was in a really fun late-night jam with Tara Nevins, Jim Miller, and Richie Stearns of DTB, and Pete Rowan on guitar. How nice to see on the Merlefest schedule, those exact people, and me, listed for an old-time jam on the Americana stage! Richie plays great funky clawhammer banjo (you may remember him from the Horseflies, which actually recorded old-time music on a major label). When we get together we make some popping banjo rhythm. And with Pete, Tara, and Jim — some of my top favorite singers — I was in Merlefest Heaven.
Songwriter Workshop. Over the years I’ve written quite a few, but most never see the light of day. At Merlefest I was given the chance to share a stage with the great Si Kahn and talented newcomer Tift Merritt, for a song swap. Tift not only writes great songs, but has a phenomenal voice to communicate them. Quite a contrast to old Pete, and Si, who was nursing a major allergy problem! But it was a friendly situation, everyone just sharing themselves through song. Si sang one of his classics, “Gone, Gonna Rise Again”, and a touching new one about his father’s severe debilities changing him into someone hard-to-recognize. Tift had a searing one about an ex-lover, and a haunting one about death ending a friendship. I sang “Ruthie”, and one called “A Day in ’89”. The latter is one I rarely do, because the subject doesn’t fit the “entertainment” context very well — it’s an account of, and my reactions to, the DC-10 plane crash I was in, in which over 100 people died. I’d opnly done it once before in public, but I was prompted to try it by a person asking me about the crash just before the song swap. Not an “performance” song, but appropriate to share in some situations, as it touches on real-life emotions and an experience few have ever witnessed, thank goodness! Whether I’ll ever record it, or perform it regularly, I don’t know. Respect for the victims and their families makes me want to go cautiously and thoughtfully.
Well, on a lighter note, some other highlights:
1. A banjo/bass workshop with T. Michael Coleman. At first we wondered what to do, just the two of us for 45 minutes. But we had a blast, picking, talking with the audience, and picking some more. At the end, we both said, “Hey, let’s do that again!”
2. The perennial on-stage “Midnight Jam” at the Walker Center, where I got to meet and pick with Larry Rice for the first time (having first seen him with Doyle Lawson in 1971), and stand up there again next to his brother Tony (sounding great as always, and looking striking with his long hair out of the ponytail and down below his shoulders). At one point Sam Bush called out “Nine Pound Hamburger” and while I was soloing, Tony pivoted around to face me with his guitar in a smiling, encouraging, butt-kicking way as only he can. Later, jamming in the dressing room and I had the neat experience of trying out “Huckling the Berries” on Clay Hess, the hot young guitar player with Ricky Skaggs. He tore it up! Afterwards I told him, “That was great, you picked that right up,” and he said, “That was on that first Country Cooking album.” Striking to me because we recorded that before Clay was even born!
3. A set with the always-amazing Kruger Brothers. I know there are a lot of hot banjo players out there, but Jens Kruger is especially noteworthy because not only can he play super-fast, with chops to spare and knowledge of every imaginable banjo style — he makes great tone, and his first commitment is to playing meaningful, tasteful music. And a great guy to boot. Especially amazing to me that he learned so much music just from records, growing up in Switzerland.
I guess the most special experience of this year’s Merlefest was the opportunity to make a presentation to Doc Watson celebrating his recent induction into IBMA’s Hall of Honor. Doc had been unable to attend our Awards show last October, so we brought the ceremony to him, at Merlefest’s main stage on Saturday night. Truly one of the all-time greats of American music, Doc is still amazingly vital at 78, and as gracious and humble a person as he appears to be on stage. He seemed a touch awkward with the honor, as he is just not an “awards” person, and doesn’t present himself as a “bluegrass” artist — but as I said in my presentation, his contributions to bluegrass music and the bluegrass community have been monumental. The plaque was impressive, and the crowd’s prolonged standing ovation was heartwarming.
After that high-charged experience, I sat down just offstage with Doc’s wife RosaLee, for had a nice chat on all sorts of subjects. It’s always so good to visit with her. I gradually noticed quite a hubbub in setting the stage for the next act. I asked RosaLee if I was in anyone’s reserved chair, and then just accepted the fact that I had a front-row seat for the big Saturday night set — bluegrass music’s newest superstar, Dolly Parton! Dolly is amazing in many ways, but in the end it’s her personality and phenomenal voice that steal the show. The 10-piece bluegrass backdrop for her music was the expected cast of young superstars, playing the longest set she has ever performed in the bluegrass mode, and it couldn’t have been better. Even when she messed up the lyrics (despite a teleprompter at her feet), and once when she swallowed a bug, it was pure entertainment. And for dessert, two duets with Doc. What a night!
Next year will be the 15th Merlefest, and I’m already looking forward to it. I’ll get to bring Joan along for the first time, since by then our son will be off to college. I’ve already put out flyers and notices for next year’s Bluegrass Jam Camp before the festival, and Joan will be there helping out. For more info on that, hit the “workshops/camps” button on the web site.
If you’ve never made it to a Merlefest, or even if you have, give it some serious consideration. People come from just about everywhere, and every one has a unique and unforgettable experience. For more info: www.merlefest.org.