MerleFest 2013 is now history, but the music, moments and memories remain to savor. This year’s festival posted aggregate numbers of 76,000 over the four days beginning April 25 and running through the 28th, on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. It was the 26th year for the festival that started in 1988 as a memorial for Merle Watson, great musician and only son of Doc and Rosa Lee Watson. Merle was killed in a tractor accident in 1985, and both Doc and Rosa Lee died last year.
Having attended only one major festival prior to this year’s event, I took a surprise opportunity to take in the fete. I learned something very quickly: one year is not enough to experience all that MerleFest has to offer. Workshops, contests, picking, dancing, kids’ programs, shopping, nature walks, open mics, and on and on make this a full-on interactive, immersive party. A person can do how much or how little they’d like; it is an entirely customizable experience. All of this doesn’t even include the MUSIC!! The music, the music, the music – it’s why we all showed up! Cajun, folk, Americana, traditional, jazz, blues, country, rock, all of the styles that Doc Watson called “traditional-plus.”
That crossing of musical genres is part of what makes MerleFest distinctive.
“MerleFest is unique in that it blends over 90 artists on 14 stages into one festival,” says Steve Johnson, MerleFest Artist Relations Manager. “MerleFest is 26 years strong in working to make the experience something the music community can be proud of, and something they want to be a part of. It’s like a big family reunion. We think it’s special, and we hope others will too. Plus, it’s one of the few festivals that is known for creating unique jams that build on music, moments, and memories. Words alone cannot describe it. It’s something that has to be experienced firsthand. When you have a ‘MerleFest Moment,’ it’s a moment that will last forever. ”
Here, then, are ten reasons, or “moments,” why MerleFest 2013 was awesome:
10. Everyone That Wants to Gets to Play – The Pickin’ Place was open to all comers with an instrument to play, jam and learn. Pete and Joan Wernick were on hand to teach banjo and jamming. There were workshops for every kind of featured music, thumb-picking, songwriting, even for washboard playing and storytelling. The Dance Tent offered old-time, clogging and square dancing, as well as let-loose freestyle. If you had music in your soul, you were encouraged to express it.
9. Bands You’ve Never Heard Of – Out of 90 acts, most with multiple performances over the course of the weekend, the odds of hearing someone for the first time were pretty good. Developing acts like The Black Lilies, The Greencards, the Snyder Family Band, Red Molly and Scythian earned their share of new fans.
8. The Midnight Jam – The Midnight Jam on Saturday evening was hosted by the Celtic-flavored Scythian, and was a sell-out. Opened by The Black Lilies, the Jam also featured John Cowan, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan and other artists that dropped in.
7. Thursday Night with Leon Russell and the Charlie Daniels Band – Leon Russell doesn’t get out all that much, so when the opportunity arose to see him at MerleFest, the crowds showed up. The CDB gathered ‘round, got down and got loud when they closed the evening with the Southern country-rock for which they are celebrated.
6. The Hillside Album Hour – Thousands of people annually carpet the steep Hillside Stage area and the road above to find out which album will be presented, a closely-held secret until the beginning of the performance. This year, Americana/prog-bluegrass band The Waybacks performed Before the Flood, the 1974 double-album from Bob Dylan and The Band. Special guests included Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan and others.
5. The Doc Watson Tribute Show – Hosted by Sam Bush, this moving show featured a revolving line-up of Doc’s friends and former band members. A few of those who appeared to pay tribute to their mentor and friend, whose presence was heavily felt at the Watson Stage, were Peter Rowan, John McEuen and Jeff Hanna from the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, the Avett Brothers, Jim Lauderdale, Jack Lawrence, Jerry Douglas, John Cowan, David Holt, Bryan Sutton and more.
4. Sam Bush – Sam deserves his own “moment,” because he certainly created much music, lots of moments and many memories at MerleFest. In fact, on Saturday alone, except for the time required to get from one gig to the next and maybe change his shirt, Sam was on stage for some ten straight hours. Whether hosting the Doc Watson Tribute Show, participating in Mando Mania at the Creekside Stage, playing in the My Friend Merle tribute performance, stunning the crowd with interplays with his own band, sitting in with the Dirt Band or any of several other collaborations, Sam seemed to be everywhere! Impressive.
3. Friday Night with The Preservation Hall Jazz Band and the Del McCoury Band – When these two acts get together, it’s time to let the good times roll. They surely did. Ronell Johnson on the tuba jumped and spun in circles. Jason Carter slashed answers on his fiddle to Charlie Gabriel’s clarinet calls. Rickie Monie’s piano and Rob McCoury’s banjo punctuated I’ll Fly Away. More than several people were heard to say that this performance was the absolute highlight of their weekend. And there were a lot of highlights.
2. Sunday Afternoon with the Avett Brothers – All day on Sunday, the rain came steadily. It was gloomy, dreary, and the MerleFest grounds were pretty quiet. Around 2:00 p.m., they started to come – Avett Brothers fans in their ponchos, flip flops and rain boots, with umbrellas waving. Scheduled for a 3:15 p.m. show, the band never had to worry whether they would play to an empty house, because They came. And They had a wonderful time, singing along, cheering and splashing (some in their bare feet), oblivious to the wet, gray skies and chilly temperatures. That’s what awesome music moments are about.
1. The Spirit of Doc and Merle Watson, Rosa Lee Watson and the Watson Family – From its beginnings all the way through last year, Doc was the musical heart of the event, and although the music community mourned his death last May and the passing of Rosa Lee in November, MerleFest made sure the spirit of the Watson family stayed at the center of the festival. Doc and Rosa Lee’s rocking chairs remained at the side of the main stage where they had enjoyed countless shows, and Doc’s backstage dressing room remained closed as a gesture of respect. There were video tributes throughout the weekend to both men, not to mention the live shows shared by family and friends. Many of the performing musicians told personal stories of Doc’s influence in their lives, and Merle was not forgotten even though it was Doc’s loss that was freshest.
Peter Rowan sang a beautiful song he co-wrote about a “Doc Watson morning, D-18, guitar-picking kind of day,” of which fans wildly approved. Though only daughter Nancy now remains, the memories of Doc, Merle and Rosa Lee Watson are very much alive and honored at MerleFest. Ultimately, that is what makes for awesome moments.
We also have a photo gallery from Andy Garrigue of Sunday’s Avett Brothers show. He shared these comments along with the photos.
“Despite a steady rain throughout, the Creekside stage area filled to capacity for the Jim Avett & Family Gospel Hour on Sunday Morning. Pulling from songs as old as the Civil War, the set was a combination history lesson and touching family gathering, with sibling harmonies in spades.
Jim and daughter Bonnie Avett harmonized gorgeously throughout the set, and sons Scott and Seth came out at the end for Feed My Sheep and more, to the delight of the mass of fans under umbrellas, ponchos, and even black garbage bags.
Ray Morton provided fine lead guitar throughout, and frequent fiddle solos also added much to the mix. Jim Avett is a wonderful performer, engaging in a very human and humorous way with the crowd, and endearingly self-deprecating about his guitar playing. Afterwards, Avett strolls through the crowd treated like a rock star, and is stopped frequently for handshakes and photo requests, and accommodates them all. One lucky couple even persuaded him to grant them a private sing along, sure to be burned in their memories.