by Glen Herbert
It’s easy to underestimate the impact that MerleFest has on Americana music, and for anyone who hasn’t attended, it’s perhaps equally easy to overlook. Initially a tribute to the late Merle Watson, Doc Watson’s son and musical partner, the festival has evolved into one of the biggest of its kind, on par only with Strictly Hardly Bluegrass in San Francisco, both of which draw between 70 and 80 000 people each year.
One of the many things that set MerleFest apart is that it is the first large-scale event of the season. Jerry Douglas has played at every festival since it began, and he has said that each year it’s like coming out of hibernation, a chance to see how so many musical friends have wintered. For everyone who arrives from anywhere north of Wilkesboro, NC, it’s the first time to wear shorts, sneeze at pollen, and get a good burn.
It’s also a community festival. Wilkesboro is as far from San Fran, and indeed any metropolis, as you can get. Four thousand volunteers work the grounds, take the tickets, and run the shows, western North Carolina’s answer to the Oberammergau. The festival grounds are dry: no booze for sale, no booze allowed in, which can seem a bit puritanical to those who haven’t experienced it. The reason isn’t because they don’t like beer, it’s rather to keep things in check. To keep it the kind of place you’d be happy to bring your kids, and it works, making Merlefest a standout event. In your 20s, go to Teluride. When you have kids that you want to share an experience with, go to Merlefest.
Because it’s the first biggie of the year, there is a kind of a trade show vibe, which is nice too. It feels a bit like being in the centre of something big. Which, well, you are. The new names on the roster are often ones that get the most buzz, and as any festival manager knows, they are the leverage behind much of the ticket sales. But those behind Merlefest haven’t overlooked the little guys, often bringing them to larger audiences for the first time. This is the festival that gave first big breaks to Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, Martha Scanlon, Tift Merrit, and indeed many others.
But, ask anyone who has gone continually over the years, and aside from Dolly Parton (more on that in a minute) the smaller acts are the ones that are remarked upon most often. The year that Reeltime Travellers played the traditional stage in the rain. The workshops in Mayes Pit. Bela Fleck and Tony Trischka trading Beatles’ songs for 15 minutes without a break. Those moments when things happen that aren’t rehearsed, those are the ones that feel the most magical, memorable.
And Dolly Parton. I didn’t make it down that year, but nearly 15 years later, ask any long-time attendees what the best set has been, and they invariably start by saying “You know what, I wasn’t even going to go down, but then at the last minute I thought, if nothing else it will be good for a laugh …” Dolly Parton, apparently, won over a lot of people with a set that was honest, kind, and included inviting Doc Watson onto the stage.
The festival is pushing 30, and of course it’s changed along the way, though in some of the most important ways, it’s stayed the same. It remains the biggest small festival you can ever hope to find.