April 22, 2012. 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.
Reflections on MerleFest
Crowd control for MerleFest 2003 was further improved with new concrete sidewalks and a 50 percent reduction in the number of commercial vendors, which added to green space. Also, as crowds grew and fans were forced farther from the Watson Stage, sound quality deteriorated for those far away. To ameliorate this problem, delay speakers were installed behind the sound mixer tower. These speakers correct the sound attenuation problem and ensure great sound production regardless of the distance between fans and the stage. Special performances included Vassar Clements’ 75th birthday jam, the Acoustic Blues Showcase, and “Follow Me Back to the Fold: A Tribute to Women in Bluegrass,” performed by Kristen Scott Benson, Dale Ann Bradley, Sally Jones, Kathy Kalick, Laurie Lewis, Lynn Morris, Mark Newton, Missy Raines, Tony Rice, Ron Stewart and The Whites.
MerleFest 2003 also welcomed Asleep at the Wheel, EmmyLou Harris, Leahy, Ricky Skaggs, Rhonda Vincent and the Rage, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and Del McCoury.
This was Leahy’s first performance at MerleFest. A terrible lightning storm struck just as they came on stage. The show must go on, and it did with the pizzazz that only Leahy can deliver.
Before MerleFest 2004 the college built two new parking lots on the north side of Alumni Hall. By moving the festival check-in to the new lots, organizers significantly reduced the amount of traffic and congestion along the shuttle route at the festival entrance, which improved the safety of pedestrians and the efficiency of the shuttle service.
Occasional rain on Friday, Saturday and Sunday did not stop a record-setting attendance. Saturday’s lineup was particularly outstanding with a special Earl Scruggs birthday set. Earl was joined by Doc and country music star Vince Gill. They played favorites such as “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.” Rosanne Cash performed Sunday afternoon to a stalwart audience that ignored the rain. Doc joined her on two Johnny Cash classics, and she also sang a song she wrote in memory of her father. The Avett Brothers took their show beyond the stage … they strolled through the vendor shops singing to the fans. Natalie MacMaster wowed the crowd with her fast-paced Celtic fiddle on the Cabin Stage.
MerleFest 2005 celebrated the beginnings of bluegrass by hosting a reunion of Bill Monroe’s Blue Grass Boys. Many former members played, including Earl Scruggs, Bobby Hicks,WilkesCountynative Jim Shumate, Richard Greene, Tony Ellis, Del McCoury, Roland White, Blake Williams and Peter Rowan. The variety of MerleFest music was evidenced by first –timers such as the Chieftains, Robert Lockwood Jr., Rodney Crowell, Railroad Earth and The Duhks. Others making 2005 appearances at MerleFest included The Avett Brothers, Loretta Lynn, Hayes Carll, Darrell Scott, Buddy Miller, Béla Fleck, The Greencards, Ricky Skaggs and the Kruger Brothers.
MerleFest 2005 took home four awards at the North Carolina Association of Festivals and Events Showfest, including the premier accolade, the Kay Saintsing Award for Event of the Year.
Singer, guitarist and songwriter Bob Weir, a founding member of the Grateful Dead, drew one of the most spirited crowds in years at MerleFest 2006. He performed with The Waybacks on several Dead classics on Friday afternoon, the moment that inspired the creation of Hillside Album Hour. During the performance a number of artists including Sam Bush, Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings spontaneously joined the set. Pete and Mike Seeger were both at the festival, with Pete, Sarah Lee Guthrie, Johnny Irion, Slaid Cleaves, Guy Clark and Jimmy LaFave appearing on Saturday night in the Woody Guthrie tribute, “Ribbon of Skyway: Endless Highway.” Another great “MerleFest Moment” that both enlivened and ecstasized festival goers was when Nickel Creek broke out in the Brittney Spears number “Toxic.” More than ever MerleFest 2006 represented the evolution and connectedness of musical styles that define the festival. This just goes to show that you never know what you’ll hear during those spontaneous, unrehearsed ”MerleFest Moments” that create never-ending ”MerleFest Memories.”
Other performers at MerleFest 2006 included Doc and Richard Watson, Béla Fleck & The Flecktones, the Avett Brothers, Tut Taylor, Hot Tuna, John Prine, Chatham County Line, the Ditty Bops, The Duhks, Alison Brown Quartet, Joe Smothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush, John Cowan and The Isaacs.
In 2007, the 20th edition of MerleFest saw impressive infrastructure changes, including the completion of Lowe’s Hall, which links the lower campus to theWalkerCenterwith two elevators. Also, staff worked diligently to increase green space and reduce the amount of cars parked within the festival grounds. Organizers moved vendors onto a parking lot to create The Shoppes at MerleFest, which then created a domino effect of relocating parking and other services. The end result was extremely positive, and staff and volunteers were proud when they saw their hard work come to fruition. “Once the festival started, we saw people doing exactly what was expressed in the original vision—people reading and lounging on the lawn and children playing in the grass. It was exactly what we wanted to achieve,” commented festival director Ted Hagaman.
Elvis Costello and the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band performed at the Watson Stage on Friday night, followed by Sam Bush, Tony Rice, Alison Krauss and Jerry Douglas on Saturday. The Infamous Stringdusters, Crooked Still and Uncle Earl were among a new wave of bands that wowed audiences.
“One of the greatest MerleFest moments for me happened in 2007,” explains Allison Phillips, executive director of the WCC Endowment Corporation. “New Grass Revival reunited for one song. The story goes that Sam Bush, Béla Fleck and John Cowan were on stage with Pat Flynn backstage looking on. Sam asked Pat if he had time for just one song. And there it was, all of the members of New Grass Revival on stage performing together, just as they had done in 1988 when they first appeared at MerleFest. It was incredible! And, I think everyone in the audience was just as thrilled about this moment as I was!”
Story continued Monday.
Story and picture courtesy of MerleFest
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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/.