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Part 7 in 10-Part Series: Reflections on MerleFest

April 21, 2010. Leading up to MerleFest, check the HCPress.com every day for the 10-part series on the festival, which began in 1988 as a one-time fundraiser for a college campus garden and a memorial for Merle Watson. MerleFest still serves as a community fundraiser and memorial, yet it has grown into one of the premiere music festivals in the world.

Charles Frazier reads from his best selling book Cold Mountain.

Continued from Part Six:

Reflections on MerleFest


MerleFest 1999 opened with two days of cold wind, heavy rain and mud. As rain poured down in sheets, Hootie and the Blowfish, completely unfazed by the weather, set the tone on Thursday evening, giving bluegrass interpretations to their hit songs. The band was joined throughout by Sam Bush on the fiddle and Chris Thile on mandolin. At one point Doc and Richard shared the stage. While Doc sang, lead singer Darius Rucker stepped to the background and danced with his four-year-old daughter.  The rains gave way to glorious Carolina blue skies and warm, comfortable weather on Saturday and Sunday.

On the Traditional Stage, Charles Frazier read from his bestselling novel “ColdMountain.” Frazier said the book was inspired by listening to “My Home Is Across the Blue Ridge Mountains” sung on the Creekside Stage during an earlier MerleFest. Saturday night, North Carolina native Earl Scruggs, considered the father of bluegrass banjo picking, told the story of the five-string banjo and talked of musicians taking the instrument in new directions.

Joining Doc and Earl on the Watson Stage were Béla Fleck, John McEuen, Pete Wernick, Jens Kruger, Tom Adams and Tony Trischka. Doc joked that he was overwhelmed by banjo pickers. Rounding out the sound were Stuart Duncan on fiddle and T. Michael Coleman on bass. After a rousing standing ovation from a packed audience, the musicians encored with the Scruggs tune “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.”

Willie Nelson


On Thursday evening of MerleFest 2000, Willie Nelson sang non-stop, song after song, during freezing temperatures, giving a most memorable performance. He wowed the Watson Stage crowd by playing hits that spanned his career. The large crowd’s enthusiasm earned him three encores. Sam Bush accompanied Willie and added a little bluegrass flavor. This was the last year that Grammy Award-winning artist John Hartford would perform at MerleFest; he died on June 4, 2001, after a long battle with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma.

Darius Rucker of Hootie and the Blowfish and Chris Thile

It also was the year that Old Crow Medicine Show appeared in the lineup. Many MerleFest fans were already familiar with the group; a few years previously, they made an unscheduled appearance at the fountain, performing as fans tossed change into an open guitar case. The group dubbed this area “The Fountain Stage” and even made their own cardboard sign indicating such. Others in the 2000 lineup included Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, Ralph Stanley and The Clinch Mountain Boys, Peter Rowan and the Free Mexican Airforce, Nickel Creek, Claire Lynch, and Frosty Morn, the band established by Merle Watson. A special MerleFest all-star jam included Alison Brown, Laurie Lewis, Rhonda Vincent, Missy Raines, Claire Lynch and Sally Van Meter. Tift Merritt, who won the 2000 Chris Austin Songwriting Contest-country category, noted that “winning the contest was the first time I was noticed outside ofChapel Hill. I had such a good time and made so many friends here.”

Doc Watson and Dolly Parton


MerleFest 2001 set the record for largest single crowd as 16,000 participants enjoyed a bluegrass-flavored performance by country music legend Dolly Parton on Saturday night. On Friday Dolly took a tour of the area, which included the view from theBrushyMountainsand lunch at Glenn’s Restaurant, a.k.a. Glenn’s Tastee Freeze, aWilkesCountylandmark. In fact, she loved Glenn’s so much, she returned there to eat a few times during her visit to MerleFest.

A memorable moment during Dolly’s performance was when Doc joined her on stage. A funny thing happened as she performed; she swallowed a bug. According to Ted Hagaman, festival director, “Dolly was just getting started when she choked a little bit, gave her famous giggle, and said, ‘Oh my, I think I just swallowed a bug.’” The rest of her performance went off like fireworks as she completely charmed the audience.

Following on the heels of the tremendous success of film “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” The Dan Tyminski Band mesmerized crowds with the blended sounds of bluegrass, country, gospel, blues and folk appropriate to the time period of the Great Depression in theDeep South. It was Dan Tyminski’s voice that was dubbed over George Clooney’s in the 2000 American film on “Man of Constant Sorrow.”

While on stage, Tyminski recalled that when he found out that his voice would be dubbed over George Clooney’s, he called his wife and told her, “George Clooney is going to have my voice!” He said that she answered, “That’s my dream!”

Others gracing stages at MerleFest 2001 included the Kruger Brothers, Nickel Creek, Sam Bush, Earl Scruggs Family & Friends, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Del McCoury and Marty Stuart.

MerleFest added the large video screen near the Watson Stage in 2001. Various camera angles and magnifications are projected on the screen so that everyone can see the action.

Alison Krauss and Dan Tyminski


The 15th edition of MerleFest in 2002 was a great success setting an overall attendance record but less crowding. Following the crowding of the largest single day ever the previous year for Dolly Parton’s performance, organizers added general admission space at the Watson Stage and worked on minimizing the golf carts and other vehicles on the grounds. Volunteer headquarters moved from the front entrance to the Caboose, further relieving congestion.

John Cowan dedicated his performance of “Good Woman’s Love” to RosaLee, Doc’s beloved “Sweetie.” Patty Loveless, Peter Rowan and Crucial Reggae, Wylie and The Wild West, Alison Brown Quartet, Sam Bush, Leahy, T. Michael Coleman, Alison Krauss & Union Station, The Kruger Brothers, the Waybacks, and Gillian Welch and David Rawlings appeared at MerleFest 2002.

Saturday night featured a great MerleFest Jam with Doc, Richard, Sam Bush, John Cowan, Alison Krauss, Jerry Douglas, David Holt, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Earl Scruggs and Nickel Creek. This jam was recorded, and on April 1, 2003, MerleFest released “MerleFest Live! The 15th Anniversary Jam.” This project was produced as a DVD, VHS and music CD.

Story continued on Sunday.

Story and picture courtesy of MerleFest

For more information, peruse our festivals page or click to www.merlefest.org.

To view this year’s lineup, click to http://merlefest.org/Lineup/.

To view this year’s stage schedules, click to http://merlefest.org/Schedules/.