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MerleFest 2008 Report

Notes From The Road: This is my “Pete’s-eye view” feature on this site, with reports on interesting people and events I encounter in my travels.

MerleFest Performances, Jams, and People

FLEXIGRASS at Merlefest

This was my 20th Merlefest, having missed only the first one, back in 1988. What an amazing event. I heard some of the most beautiful music and some of the most inspiring I’ve heard in a long time (Jerry Douglas Band and Levon Helm’s Ramble on the Road set concluding Saturday night).

Pete and Ralph Stanley

Got to visit with Ralph Stanley, George Shuffler, Terry Baucom, Bob Carlin, Todd Phillips, Alison Brown, Béla Fleck, and Mike, Meredith and Riley Bub, led 43 jam campers singing and playing on the Cabin Stage, guested with the Waybacks as they performed the entire album Led Zeppelin II (yes, you read that right; for video evidence, click here or here), played three sets with Flexigrass including one where we joined forces with Hunter Berry on fiddle, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, and the African griot master Cheick Hamala Diabate. If there is anything we can expect from Merlefest, it’s the unexpected!

From John, one of our jam campers: “There was an interesting little thing that happened while we were waiting to go on the cabin stage you might not have heard about. Dan noticed Marty Stuart walking by and said “Hey Marty, we need some advice.” So Marty actually walks over and says, “About what?” Dan tells him we’re going on for the first time ever and we’re nervous, what should we do? Marty says, “Just close your eyes and go to a place that’s deep, dark, and blue.” Pretty funny and I thought nice that he would take a moment to chat with us. Stuff like this just doesn’t happen sitting around the office.”

Pete & Joan on the cabin stage

Doc Watson, now 85, was his usual amazing self, hitting a high yodel clear as a bell, and holding to the gold standard of picking as well.

On the last day Joan and I arrived in the morning for our set in the Traditional Tent, and there was Laura Boosinger leading about 20 folks in shape-note hymn singing. Sounded great! It is always a pleasure and an honor to play in this tent, where some of America’s best traditional musicians have played for years.

We were also honored to fill in for Doc, who had to leave early, leading the musical tribute to Merle that traditionally ends the festival.

With the festival over, Joan and I headed up into the hills a few miles to the new home of Jens Kruger, where we shared in a post-festival feast complete with music making (Joan leading a large roomful of mostly Canadian folks, singing “Snowbird”).

Many thanks to B Townes, the mastermind of Merlefest, and the new crew led by Ted Hagaman, John Adair, and their hardworking team. When you have 15 performance venues, you’d better have a lot of golf carts, and they do!

Jam Camp at Herring Ridge

Group shot on hall steps

Prior to the festival was the biggest jam camp we’ve ever hosted, our 10th annual (the first jam camp ever was here in 1999). With 45 people from 13 to over 70, from 17 states and Spain, this was one lively group! We debuted our first full two-track (basic/intermediate) jam program, with a total of four teachers. The campers were enthused and tireless, from the by-the-lake campfire Tuesday night to our festival performance Thursday. Many folks hit new musical heights, including harmony singing, improvising breaks, and jamming with a wide variety of people. The Jam Camp Opry was a hoot too! All in a beautiful setting “away out in nature”, but with good food and all the comforts. We are very proud to present an enjoyable week for the good jamming folks. Thanks for some special gifts, a jar of prizewinning pickled okra from Nelson, and some lovely hand-whittled Christmas tree ornaments by Hal.

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