During the last weekend of April, close to 80,000 people from as far away as Japan, Australia and Germany converged upon the town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina. What drew these people to the small town in the Appalachian Mountains? A gathering of musicians including Bela Fleck, Marty Stuart and Levon Helm. And as VOA's Katherine Cole reports, the memory of Merle Watson, and respect and love for his father, Doc, is what brought the performers.
Grammy-winning singer and songwriter Jim Lauderdale was one of the more than 100 artists who performed on the 14 Merlefest stages set up around the campus of Wilkes Community College.
Cole: "What is so special about this festival? Everybody talks about it with such awe …"
Lauderdale: "You know, it's just got this thing about it. I think that maybe it's the concentration of great artists. They get the cream of the crop. And it has a great reputation. Now, it's kind of something you aspire to play at, like the Newport Folk Festival, or something. It's really evolved into that, I think."
Cole: "And what is so special about Doc Watson?"
Lauderdale: "Wow! He is a real architect for a style of music really. For guitar playing, he influenced so many great pickers, Clarence White, Tony Rice are among them … Jerry Garcia. So many people revere Doc."
Doc and his son Merle Watson had been playing and recording together for nearly 20 years, and had won four Grammy Awardss before a farm accident tragically ended their partnership. The first Merlefest was held two years later, as a tribute to the younger Watson.
Unlike many festivals, Merlefest is a non-profit event, and has become the major fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, allowing the school to make numerous site improvements and fund scholarships for its students. Local civic groups are also involved in Merlefest, either providing services like shuttle buses or vending food. Traditionally, many have made their operational money for the year, just through their association with Merlefest.
2008 was Tish Hinojosa's third time playing at Merlefest, but her first visit since leaving Texas and setting up residence in Germany. Like many of the other performers, Tish said her festival highlight was seeing Doc Watson playing the guitar.
Hinojosa: "Just seeing him again was so wonderful. He just embraces the entire feeling of what the festival is all about. He is very kind, and his heart is in the music. As I saw in his set where he played all that wonderful music, not only his own, and not only bluegrass, but going outside the borders of bluegrass and playing popular music of the 1950s. And a little bit of Elvis and things. That was not only entertaining, but just so 'Americana.' He's just so broadminded, and I think that's the spirit of the festival, too."
Cole: "I'm always so impressed at how much he's working during the festival! Here is a man in his mid-80s, and every time you look, there he is up on stage!"
Hinojosa: "I know! We were watching that, too. Probably it's the music that helps him feel that way."
Cole: "Was there anyone beside Doc that you made a mental note not to miss this weekend?"
Hinojosa: "Peter Rowan. I never get tired of watching him and seeing him play in all these different configurations. We saw him play with Hot Buttered Rum. He played with Sam Bush and myself, and I saw him play with The Waybacks. Oh, and of course, on stage with Doc. It's wonderful to watch masters at their art. It was great!"
CoIe: "And what is next for you?"
Hinojosa: "A flight back to Germany, my new home."
Cole: "Your husband is from Germany. Was this a new type of festival for him, or has he been here before?"
Hinojosa: "No, that was really exciting for both of us! We went to Tennessee before coming here. So it was his first trip to Memphis and Nashville, and then his first Merlefest. Actually, he'd never been to an American music festival and he's a very, very big music lover. So he was like a kid in candy store here. It was amazing!"
Even with a lineup that included fan favorites Sam Bush, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby, and Rhonda Vincent and The Rage, it is the opportunity to see 85-year-old Doc Watson in action that has always been one of Merlefest's biggest attractions. He played several times on each day of the four-day event, sometimes with a large band, others with just a bass player and another guitarist as accompaniment.
While he won't ever admit to having a favorite performance, Doc Watson says he always enjoys his reunion with the members of a band Merle played in called Frosty Morn, a group that now only plays together at their Merlefest reunions.