More than 80,000 people recently attended the 20th annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, April 26-29, making the four-day event the largest music festival in the southeastern United States. That's quite a contrast to the first Merlefest in 1988, an event that attracted only 4,000 fans. VOA's Katherine Cole has more on this year's musical tribute to the late Merle Watson, son and musical partner of folk and country great Doc Watson.
Other than Doc Watson, Sam Bush is the only performer to play at every Merlefest. So it's fitting that he was chosen to lead the "20th Homecoming Jam," that also featured performances by Earl Scruggs, Jerry Douglas, and Pam Tillis, along with Doc Watson.
"Right now we want to call back to the stage the reason we have Merlefest, Mr. Doc Watson," said Bush. "I mentioned earlier what a fortunate time in music it is that we get to hear Doc Watson play. And it's especially fortunate as well when you get to hear Doc Watson alongside the reason that every banjo picker here plays the banjo, the man who started it all, Mr. Earl Scruggs!"
The performers who took part in the "Homecoming Jam" this year were Merlefest longtimers, all musicians who had shared the stage with Doc and Merle Watson in the 1970s and 1980s. In addition to Sam Bush and Earl Scruggs, this group included two of Doc's longtime performing partners, guitarist Jack Lawrence and bass player T. Michael Coleman.
There were, however, a few notable first-timers on this year's lineup, such as Elvis Costello, who began his set with solo acoustic versions of some of his greatest hits, before welcoming to the stage a back-up band of Merlefest regulars, including Jim Lauderdale, Jerry Douglas and Sam Bush. Elvis' set proved to be one of the most talked-about of the weekend.
Another band that drew a lot of attention was the female string band Uncle Earl.
The first Merlefest was held on the back of a flatbed truck, quite a contrast to this year's festival, which featured 13 stages. That meant many of the close to 90 acts at Merlefest 2007 played two or three sets over the weekend. But that pales when compared to Uncle Earl's schedule on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. The band's Kristin Andreassen explains that their Friday started very early.
Andreassen: "We got up at 8 A.M. We did a school show at 9. Then we played three sets. And then I did the song contest," she said. "[Bandmate] Rayna did a set. Today we've done two things so far."
Cole: "And then you've got at least one more today. You've got your own Uncle Earl set, and then you all are playing in the jam tonight."
Andreassen: "We're playing in the midnight jam, which usually goes until two in the morning or something like that. They keep us busy."
Cole: "And then are you done?"
Andreassen: "No. We've got a square dance tomorrow."
Cole: "What does it mean for a band to play Merlefest? Is this an important one as things go?"
Andreassen: "Yes. This is one of the big ones for bluegrass. On the east coast, it is probably the biggest bluegrass festival. And it's important for us [Uncle Earl] because it's where we met John Paul Jones a couple of years ago. He produced our last record. John Paul Jones … the bass player from Led Zeppelin, that is! This is the festival that he picked to attend. He was coming from London, and he was interested in American bluegrass music. This is the festival that he picked to come and check out."
Cole: "Is there anyone in particular that you wanted to see at the festival this year? Who are you excited about?"
Andreassen: "Well, I'm about to see The Duhks. I'm very excited about that because they've got a new lead singer, so I'm really excited to check that out. They're a band from Winnipeg. And of course, Doc Watson. This is the Merle Watson memorial festival, and you have to catch Doc play at least one set while you're here."
Cole: "What's so special about Doc Watson?"
Andreassen: "Yes. This is one of the big ones for bluegrass. On the east coast, it is probably the biggest bluegrass festival. And "He has the energy of somebody who sings and plays for the love of the music, almost more so than any other performer that I know right now. And that approach to the music inspires me, and I think it is just really obvious when you watch him play that Doc would be sitting at home and playing the songs if he wasn't onstage playing those songs."
Even with a bill that included fan favorites like Pam Tillis, The John Cowan Band, and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, it is the opportunity to see the legendary Doc Watson in action that has always been one of Merlefest's biggest attractions. At the age of 84, the folk singer opened and closed the four-day event, performing several sets each day, sometimes with a large band, others with just a bass player and another guitarist as accompaniment.
While he won't admit to having a favorite performance of the weekend, Doc has said he always enjoys his set with Frosty Morn, Merle's band. Many Merlefest attendees agree, as Frosty Morn's once-a-year reunion to play some familiar songs and tell stories about their friend Merle Watson is always one of the festivals best-attended performances.