Musings on Merlefest 2009
Greetings, my friends! I have just returned from Merlefest. For readers who are not aware, Merlefest is one of the premiere American roots music festivals, occurring at the end of April every year in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. Like most events of this size and scope, (and I do mean size and scope – Merlefest attendance is in the tens of thousands) it is more than just a music festival – it has a culture, a vibe, a feeling all it’s own, and is a truly mind-opening experience. As I mentioned, Merlefest is a roots music festival, and the list as their mission to present “a high quality diversified American roots based musical experience”. Now, I could quibble with the use of the term “diversified”, since the representation of roots music from continents other than Europe seems slim at best. But, it is not my goal here to pick apart the experience, so I shall let that be. My aim here is to celebrate and share all the wonderful experiences of the past few days. Now, I will share up front that, when attending Merlefest, my first wish is to be able to clone myself 10 times over, so that I could make it to all the sets I want to see. Alas, science has yet to catch up with my desires. The festival runs 4 days. I was able to make it to 2 days this year, and here is what I saw:
Scythian (www.scythianmusic.com) on the Americana stage: Caught a good chunk of one set from this band of young guys, playing a mixture of tunes with Celtic and eastern European influences. Great energy, cute young guys, lots of fun, what’s not to like?
Songwriting Workshop (with James Nash and Warren Hood from The Waybacks www.waybacks.com ) in Mayes Pit: Here’s one of my favorite things about Merlefest – the workshops. These quiet and intimate sessions offer a real glimpse into the creative process, and with the heat this year, a wonderful indoor respite from the weather. Since one of my favorite things is writing songs, I loved this opportunity to listen to a discussion on method, inspiration, getting over writing blocks, and moving from ideas into fruition.
Meandering and Shopping: Don’t think there’s only music at Merlefest. When you go, plan plenty of time to wander and take in the sights and shops, and plan for all the things you will buy when you win the lottery.
Jim Lauderdale and Friends (www.jimlauderdale.com ) on the Austin stage: Here’s a name I have seen many times on the Merlefest line-up, and I finally made it to one of his sets. No wonder he has so many friends who want to join him on stage. I love Jim’s easy and joyful temperament, and his emphasis on songwriting. If it’s country music you love, this is the guy for you.
Chris Austin Songwriting Contest on the Austin stage: Ah, yes, yet another opportunity to take in a session focused on songwriting. This contest is one of many held every year at Merlefest, giving normal folks the chance to move up to the ranks of those onstage. In fact, many a main-stager was once a contestant in one of these contests. This particular session featured the 3 finalists in each of 4 categories of songs (country, bluegrass, gospel, and “general” – hmmm…..I refer back to the diversity question). The winners in each category are then given a chance to perform at breaks on the main stage, and the runners up get slots at the songwriters’ coffee house session. So, some nicely written songs, and some decisions from the panel of judges that make you wonder, but no discussion of how these decisions were reached, so you are left wondering, and clapping your heart out for the contestants. Go songwriters!
The Duhks (www.duhks.com pronounced “ducks”) on the Hillside stage: This band is nothing short of a powerhouse of eclectic creative energy. Their music mixes all sorts of influences, from Led Zeppelin to French Canadian folk songs. When I saw them last, 2 years ago at Merlefest, they had just replaced their lead singer, and were still struggling to find their feet in new waters. Well, struggle no more! All hesitancy is gone, as lead singer Sarah Dugas has settled into the microphone with grace and style, and the band has developed a firm foundation to support their stellar musical exploration.
Donna the Buffalo (www.donnathebuffalo.com) on the Hillside stage: This band must be the finest dance band in the world for regular people without fancy moves. If you can imagine feeling warm and fuzzy, closing your eyes, and grooving along to fun and positive folk rock tunes for hours, you have imagined a Donna the Buffalo show. Now I will say that sitting and watching is not the best way to take in Donna the Buffalo. Their stage style and talk between songs does not inspire enthusiasm. But close your eyes and tune in your other senses, and you’ve got the makings for a lot of fun.
Find some Food: Merlefest features a huge food tent, with lots of choices at decent prices provided by local charities and organizations. The festival has also added smaller food venders throughout the festival grounds, making it easier to get your snack on and your drink on, not matter where you are when you need it. It is best, however, to avoid the busy times in the food tent, when the crowd can be overwhelming.
Songwriter Coffeehouse in The Lounge: (Can you tell I have an interest in songwriting?) An evening rainstorm and main stage delay for lightning made my choice for Friday evening all the easier. I love the Songwriter Coffeehouse, which alternates short intimate sets from main stage performers, with runners-up from the songwriting competition, and aspiring songwriters who have won a performance slot by entering a lottery. In past years, I have seen up close and personal performances in this venue to make my heart sing. This year was no exception, as I had my first taste of Anne and Pete Sibley – I’ll share more on them later. Unfortunately, following a short set by 2 of the Dixie Beeliners, the stage schedule got a little out of whack, and the momentum was broken, and I decided to opt for more rest over staying out the night in The Lounge.
Vocal Workshop in Mayes Pit: The little taste of Anne and Pete Sibley on Friday night was enough to tip the scales for me on Saturday morning, and point me firmly towards the Vocal Workshop. Now, I will say that when I first visited Merlefest, maybe 8 years ago, the Vocal Workshop was nothing more than a line of musicians known for their vocals, each taking a turn leading a song. Luckily, under the firm hand of super-singer John Cowan, this session has become an informative and intriguing exploration of the divine art of singing. (In case I come off as playing favorites, I will disclose here that the gentleman and I have been known to each other as friends for many, many years ;-) you go, Cowboy!) In between fielding audience questions on a variety of vocal concerns and related topics, the panel (Anne and Pete Sibley, Cowan, and Laurelyn and Kari from the band Polecat Creek) treated us all to a few short tunes, and a sing-along of I’ll Fly Away.
John Cowan Band (www.johncowan.com) on the Creekside stage: Ahhh…..where else at Merlefest could one hope to find a Charlie Parker tune than at a JCB set? This band has evolved as the band members have revolved over the last several years, exploring the nuances of each step along the way. This version of JCB adds a full drum kit to the mix, allowing Mr. Cowan to ease up as the rhythmic center of the band, and put more energy into vocals and playful licks on the bass. The musicianship is stellar across the board, the tunes diverse, all forming the backdrop for what the audience wants the most – a big serving of soaring vocals. As expected, The Voice of Newgrass delivers, and the crowd goes wild.
The Greencards (www.thegreencards.com) on the Watson stage: I only caught part of this set, but found what I heard to be compelling in the best sort of way – a neat mixture of powerful and upbeat bluegrassy stuff, with some haunting slow numbers tossed in for good measure. I will look for opportunities to hear a full set from this band in the future.
Tift Merritt (www.tiftmerritt.com) on the Watson stage: Tift Merritt was one of the judges for the songwriting competition, so I was curious to check out her music. A nice mix of folk rock originals ensued, perhaps a little dwarfed by the Watson stage itself. (I have seen this happen before at Merlefest – bands that are accustomed to wedging themselves together on small stages take the opportunity to spread out and try to fill the expanse of the Watson. The result can be a loss of connection in live performance. You just know that when Tift has to run back and forth to talk to band mates between songs, it takes energy away from her performance, especially the vocals.) That said, I enjoyed the songs, and will be happy to listen in again some time.
Anne and Pete Sibley (www.anneandpetesibley.com) in The Lounge: For me, every Merlefest brings some musical discovery that leaves me in awe. This year, once I had a little taste of Anne and Pete Sibley, I scoured the schedule in search of an opportunity to take in a full set. An intimate setting is ideal for this duo, allowing the audience to fully take in the loving give and take of life partners making beautiful music together. Having a romantic heart makes me a sucker for this duo, who recently won the Prairie Home Companion’s Duo Competition. The vocal harmony is sublime, the songwriting achingly engaging, and the overriding sense that this couple is having a wonderful time together just enough to make you wanna cry.
The Kruger Brothers (www.krugerbrothers.com) on the Americana stage: At almost every Merlefest I have attended, I have found myself sitting at one stage, heard a huge audience roar from another stage, and checking the schedule to see who I had missed, found it was The Kruger Brothers. So this time around, I passed up on other great opportunities, and sat myself down on the grass to take in this trio combining European heritage and a passion for American music, with amazing results. Now, I’m a sucker for vocals, so I wish they would sing more, but when they do, the voices are rich and the harmony wonderful. The instrumentals have that wonderful texture that comes from knowing each other well enough to have a firm foundation, and plenty of room to stretch out in any direction. Now here’s where I could just kick myself – I left this set before it was over to check out another session. I won’t even mention the other session, as it was not my favorite. And what happened again? Once again, I heard the crowd roar. And who was it for? ……of course, The Kruger Brothers.
Docabilly – Doc Watson and Friends on the Watson stage: At previous Merlefests, I have spent many hours camped out at the Austin stage, taking in the many languages of the blues. This year, I left my yen for the blues in the capable hands of the patriarch of Merlefest, Doc Watson. Joined by a long string of musical giants, Doc effortlessly guided this delightful session through vintage country, rock, blues, and hillbilly tunes, topped off by a touching tribute to the namesake of the festival, Merle Watson. Good plain fun, all around.
Pat Donohue (www.patdonohue.com) on the Cabin Stage: It’s always a welcome relief at the end of a busy festival day, to settle in at the main stage, and take in the great rotation of talent back and forth between the Watson and the Cabin stages. After years of hearing Garrison Keillor introduce audiences to “Mr. Pat Donohue”, what fun to take in a solo set from a whiz of finger picking guitar. The mixture of Chet Atkins inspired licks, and originals with a playful sense of humor, was a good and informal fun for a big festival audience.
Emmylou Harris ( www.emmylouharris.com) on the Watson stage: When I grow up, I would like to be just like Emmylou Harris. Making beautiful music, carrying herself with confident grace, proudly announcing herself as a grandmother, and wearing her natural hair – Emmylou makes being a grandma truly cool. With a deep catalog of music from which to pull, Emmylou delivered on songs from her most recent release, all the way back to, as she put it, a song that hit the charts when she was “still a brunette”. My favorite Emmylou collection, Red Dirt Girl, with its haunting themes and sound, was well represented, so I was a happy festival camper.
Happy, but tired – not being as young as I used to be, Emmylou was the last full set of my Merlefest 2009. As I slowly made my exit, timed to avoid the crush for the lines to the shuttle buses, I heard a bit of David Bromberg and Angel Band. No one can do the anguished and angry jilted man like David Bromberg. And Sam Bush, a true giant of Americana music, and a fine showman overall….I have seen Sam Bush perform many times, and enjoyed them all. I took in the rest of this set over Merlefest radio, on my drive back to the hotel room, to lay down my weary and well-satisfied head.
Check out festival downloads and information at www.merlefest.org.