Sunday, April 29, 2007

merlefest 2007

I am behind in postings to this blog. I have a couple of things I want to include here, including a sermon or two, and a piece i wrote for UM Nexus on "Earth Day", but that will all have to wait. I spent Friday and Saturday evening in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, attending Merlefest. This has almost become a spiritual practice for me, an essential pilgrimage that occurs between Easter and Pentecost. Merlefest is a four-day festival in memory of Merle Watson, the late son of the legendary guitarist Doc Watson from Deep Gap, North Carolina. This year's festival was the twentieth anniversary, and I have probably attended eight of them, I would guess. I have never stayed for the entire time, although some of my friends whose priorities are in order do this.

At any rate, the estimate is that 85,000 or so attended this year, and Saturday evening was as crowded as I can remember (the only comparable attendance being the spring after O Brother, Where Art Thou was released and Alison Krauss and her band were headliners). On Friday evening I went with my friends Steve and Moe, our second year of making the journey. The early evening began with a jam session that included Bela Fleck (regarded as the premiere banjo player in the world), Sam Bush (one of two premiere mandolin players, along with Chris Thile of Nickel Creek), and Jerry Douglas (the greatest dobro player on the planet). Their Strength in Numbers is the classic in improvisational roots/Americana music.

After their set, I wandered over to the Creekside Venue and caught a little of Jim Lauderdale's performance. Jim Lauderdale is an amazingly talented singer/songwriter, a native of Troutman, North Carolina and a graduate of the North Carolina School of The Arts. Back on the main stage, the Jerry Douglas Band performed, and they were followed by Elvis Costello, the British musician.

Some had wondered with surprise about the wisdom of Elvis Costello at Merlefest, but it has always been an eclectic gathering. He began with some of his standards ("Every Day I Write The Book" and "Alison", which Linda Ronstadt covered), and then he gradually brought out the heavy hitters----Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Byron House (bass), Stuart Duncan (fiddle) amazing group. The highlight of their show, for me, was a rendition of "Friend of The Devil", the Grateful Dead anthem. They were followed by the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, whose connection with Doc Watson goes back thirty years to the classic Will The Circle Be Unbroken?

The next night Jack (from Haiti) and I went, and my daughter Liz from Chapel Hill met us there. It was another incredible night of music: Donna The Buffalo, Darrell Scott (composer of "Long Time Gone" by the Dixie Chicks), Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Sam Bush, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Alison Krauss, Tony Rice, Crooked Still (a new band from New England), Pam Tillis, and members of the Duhks. And so, here is a brief recollection of the musical highlights from the two evenings.

Sam Bush Band, White Bird (the FM staple originally recorded by It's A Beautiful Day)
Sam Bush Band, Whole Lotta Love (yes, the Led Zeppelin standard)
Darrell Scott, Hank William's Ghost
Jerry Douglas, Futureman
Elvis Costello and Friends, Friend of The Devil
Jim Lauderdale, Timberline
Crooked Still, Orphan Girl
Doc Watson, Walk in Jerusalem Just Like John
Donna The Buffalo, all of it
Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, You Aint Going Nowhere
Elvis Costello, Hidden Shame (his song, recorded by Johnny Cash)

Some other aspects of the experience: I ran into Graham Sharp, who plays the banjo with Steep Canyon Rangers. I was a pastor in his church as he grew up, and his band is doing very well, playing on the main stage. I also got to meet Darrell Scott, who is an amazingly gifted songwriter and musician, and who seemed to be a very humble, down to earth person. Liz met him as well. That is a part of what Merlefest is all about--the artists are very close to those who come to listen, and these kinds of encounters happen. You also get the sense that the artists are fans of the music as well; they are there not only to perform but also to listen and to enjoy.

Anyway, late last night it was "down from the mountain", and this morning was an amazing time for our church. But more about that later as well...


Blogger dickrobie said...

Hi I am a member of Sharon UMC and also a roots music fan. Check out We are trying to bring great comfort food and live roots music to the area. We have a special event planned on the 19th and will be selling our wonderful food at the Kings Dr. Farmers Market by Nay 22nd. Rich Walker - 517-6508

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