MerleFest 2023 report

Laura Orshaw, Julian Pinneli, Rob McCoury, and Jason Carter at MerleFest – photo © Gina Proulx

I been thinking a lot about the 100th birthday anniversary of the late great Doc Watson. 100 years is certainly a long time. I looked it up because I didn’t know, and from a generational standpoint, 100 years reflects three to 4fourcomplete generations, each overlapping with the one before, and just after. And even if they don’t directly overlap each other, generations affect each other, despite potentially being separated by a number of decades. In my mind, those disparate generations still affect each other, because each one leaves its own mark to be found, deciphered, and used to continue on with. 

With this newly gleaned awareness about the number 100 and its requisite individual generations, I arrived in Wilkesboro, North Carolina for the 35th MerleFest celebration on the grounds of Wilkes Community College. 

It’s been 14 years since I’ve visited this festival. But many of what were the features back 14 years ago are still there today. A large geographical area for the festival with multiple stages remains. The charming cabin stage connected by a walkway to the much much larger and taller Watson stage is still the centerpiece of the festival. But there are numerous other smaller stages where magic is also found. 

The overlapping and disparate generations affected in the last 100 years by the life of Doc Watson, as well as his son Merle, were well reflected at this year’s 35th annual event. It really was a vibrantly diverse and musically deep artist lineup.  

It really was a very specific lineup this year – that for me, reinforced the importance of the past 100 years of Watson family influence on bluegrass, americana, and country music. The artist roster read like a timeline of music heading all the way back to the early days, and into the beyond. Joe Smothers, Peter Rowan, and Jack Lawrence provided the music history foundation to later generations like Sam Bush, The Youngers, and Donna the Buffalo. Classic ’70s country era was represented well with the legendary Tanya Tucker on Sunday afternoon. Rock ‘n’ roll on Thursday night with Black Crowes members Chris and Rich Robinson, performing as Brothers of a Feather. The presence of younger bands like the Black Opry Review, Scythian, Maren Morris, Marcus, King, and the Avett Brothers depict a diversity of message and messenger that portends a healthy and vibrant musical era to overlap with this current one. 

I had a mental agenda of who I was interested in hearing and photographing, the most when I arrived at a festival. But I didn’t expect to see was so much rain. Now most of us reading are seasoned festivarians, well-accustomed to rainy weekends. As am I. But that said, there was a lot of rain. And with it came a lot of mud. Parking personnel at the festival took the brunt of all of that rain and mud, and did their best. They were constantly having to shuffle where they put vehicles on a day-to-day basis because of excessive daily damage to the parking areas by muddy bogs of car-trapping brown sludge.

I think the rockstar of my own personal weekend was the rubber boots that I never took off unless sleeping. Heavy rain three to four days took its toll on the festival grounds. It wasn’t the worst mud I’ve seen at a music festival. After all I went to PHISH’s Coventry. Yet moving about, from stage to stage, and certainly for those camping, it was a muddy mess. 

Despite the logistical challenges of a rainy weekend, there were many highlights. Little Feat performed in a steady rain on Thursday night, delivering a strong performance, with a special guest of Miko Marks, who would deliver a second stellar show the next afternoon with her own band.

Scythian would have their set interrupted by weather on Friday afternoon, but return to the other smaller stages before the weekend was out. 

In the Avett Brothers finale to the evening with one of the better sets I’ve heard from this band personally in several years. 

Saturday weather was a great improvement. All the rain would eventually return, and without a shadow of a doubt, my favorite performance of the morning would have to be the MerleFest Veterans set with Jack Lawrence, Jerry Douglas, Joe Smothers, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, and T. Michael Coleman. Just full of fun stories about Doc and some amazing fast picking.

Sunday’s artist cancellation of Nickel Creek, due to Chris Thile’s need for vocal rest, was recovered brilliantly by festival organizers with the last minute booking of The Traveling McCourys featuring Del McCoury, who seemed to be the musical bridge offered up between the eras of Doc, Del, and the music of today. 

The lineup for the 35th MerleFest was like a list of stew ingredients from all of the different eras and generations that were part of the musical lifetime of Doc Watson. And despite the challenges of life, as represented by the weather and the mud, the recipe is a great one. Doc made sure he did his part to strengthen and grow the genres of music before he handed it off to the next generations to simmer it even longer. 

All photos © Gina Elliott Proulx