Arguably the nation’s greatest yearly festival dedicated to traditional American music forms, Merlefest has grown far beyond the two flatbed pickup trucks that formed the stage for the first event 19 years ago.
Arguably the nation’s greatest yearly festival dedicated to traditional American music forms, Merlefest has grown far beyond the two flatbed pickup trucks that formed the stage for the first event 19 years ago. Now attracting over 82,000 people to crowd the tents, lawns, and converted baseball fields of Wilkesboro Community College in North Carolina, the festival Doc Watson started as a tribute to his late son Merle is a genuine folk music phenomenon, pulling in a strange mix of bemused locals, graying folk enthusiasts, and college kids on a cross country trek from April 29 to May 1.
Though the crowd had yet to swell to even half capacity, the first day of the festival was kicked off by festival favorites the Avett Brothers, bluegrass legends the Dillards, and a spirited set by Jim Lauderdale and his newly fashioned bluegrass band. Americana legend John Prine was the night’s main attraction, running his canonized classics through a stripped down quartet and his characteristically quirky between song banter. With the artificial light illuminating the cathedral of pine trees that surrounded the stage, a shooting star put the finishing touches on a perfect pastoral setting, leaving Prine to color the chilled spring night with his echoes of songs both timely and timeless.
With as many as 13 stages going at any one time, there are simply too many quality acts for one person to see. Guy Clark fought allergies to play a request-heavy set that was unfortunately scheduled over the one Gillian Welch was playing 500 yards away at the main stage. New Lost City Rambler and folk song archivist Mike Seeger delivered a professorly demonstration of obscure banjo techniques and guitar styles while struggling to be heard over Bob Weir and the Waybacks as they set hippies past and present spinning under a canopy of guitar feedback from the Grateful Dead’s back catalog. If you were lucky, your favorite act was playing more than one set over the course of the weekend. At the very least, you were going to get some exercise hiking across the campus in hopes to see as much as possible.
The sense that one was witnessing living history was heavy, whether watching the 83-year-old Doc Watson prove he hasn’t lost a step or seeing ailing blues paragon Algia Mae Hinton fight arthritis for what seemed likely to be one of her last performances. Though he was arguably the festival’s most legendary artist, Pete Seeger took a low-profile gig at the children’s stage, using his trademark longneck banjo to spryly lead the kids through “She’ll Be Comin’ Around the Mountain” and “Skip to My Lou.” At 87, it’s hard to know how many more times the now reclusive Seeger will perform, but on this day he seemed entirely in his element, bounding across the stage as children giggled while he acted out the motions of stories he has been telling for the last 70 years.
Those interested in less traditionally-mined artists were similarly well sated, with high energy folk-poppers the Duhks and quirky jazz-pop duo the Ditty Bops pushing the graybeards to the sidelines. The average age fell even further with teenagers lining up in deep rows to watch a pleasantly dull set by Nickel Creek. Though it was arguably the most interesting moment of their performance, the band’s cover of Britney Spears’ “Toxic” confirmed the traditionalists’ worst suspicions, pushing the generation gap farther with the fact that most of the Nickel Creek army already knew the song.
Though you would never lack options, whether you wanted to go to a square dance, attend a workshop on traditional banjo styles, or start a makeshift band in the jam tent, the stages could be uncomfortably crowded, and if you didn’t arrive early, you might be shut out entirely. By Friday afternoon, the main stage area had spilled over onto a second lawn, leaving anyone in general admission to fumble with binoculars to see much of anything. Scheduling anomalies abounded, as well, from Doc Watson and the Nashville Bluegrass Band playing at 10:00 a.m. on Sunday morning to David Holt and Peter Rowan’s main sets being scheduled over each other.
Those complaints aside, Merlefest stands alone among the great American folk festivals. Nowhere else can you see Gillian Welch and David Rawlings play hymns in the woods or African musician Cheick Hamala Diabate trade banjo licks with bluegrass musicians. By the time Emmylou Harris played a crowd-pleasing set of her stripped-down hits and gospel-flavored covers and Béla Fleck played a mind-boggling blend of jazz and bluegrass, all that was left was for Pete Seeger to lead the crowd in a grandfatherly rendition of “Jacob’s Ladder” and for the everyone to return home, happy and well-fed.