April 23, 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
MerleFest 2008 kicked off the new era of a greener MerleFest as the organizers and volunteers began to work toward reducing the environmental impact of the festival and setting a positive example of responsible environmental stewardship by adding more recycling bins. Musical “moments” included: The Welcome Home Super Jam featuring The Duhks; Jim Lauderdale performing with Peter Rowan; Donna the Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale; The New Generation Super Jam featuring The Steel Drivers, The Belleville Outfit, The Dixie Bee-Liners, The Farewell Drifters and Cadillac Sky; “The Greatest Acoustic Blues Show on Earth” featuring Roy Book Binder, Mitch Greenhill, Happy Traum and Pat Donohue; and the Spirit of Sunday set with Doc and the Nashville Bluegrass Band. The inaugural Hillside Album Hour took place on Saturday afternoon as The Waybacks and John Cowan performed all the songs on “Led Zeppelin II.” It was great to hear the familiar riffs being played on banjo by none other than “Dr. Banjo” himself, Pete Wernick.
The Avett Brothers drove the crowds wild during their Friday night performance at the Watson Stage. It was literally standing room only when suddenly the fans creatively cleared a space for dancing. They started passing chair after chair from reserved seating backwards from row to row. In the dark, only the shadows of chairs dancing above the crowds were visible until the impromptu dance floor was created.
The morning after the Avett Brothers’ performance, a band of volunteers swept onto campus to put things back in order before fans arrived to celebrate more music, moments and memories.
Other 2008 performers included Sierra Hull & Highway 111, The Dan Tyminski Band, Marty Stuart, Nashville Bluegrass Band, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Hot Buttered Rum, The Infamous Stringdusters, Old Crow Medicine Show, Levon Helm and the Ramble on the Road, Ricky Skaggs and Bruce Hornsby with the Kentucky Thunder, and Scythian, making their debut appearance at MerleFest.
Speaking of The Stringdusters, band member Andy Hall created quite a memorable MerleFest moment in 2008 when he proposed to Janice Young, his future wife, during a performance on the Watson Stage.
“I remember he was just a little ways into the set, and he seemed to be a little nervous about something,” says Allison Phillips, executive director of the WCC Endowment Corporation. “Finally he stopped and asked Janice to come onto stage with him. I think everyone knew what was about to happen. He got down on one knee and popped the question. And the crowd went crazy.”
MerleFest added the Welcome Stage in 2008. This stage is located at the main festival entrance. Fans are able to enjoy great entertainment while waiting for the gates to open or to get through the festival lines. On late Saturday afternoon of the festival, a major storm came through the area. The band Scythian, making its debut at MerleFest on the Welcome Stage, soon had to move under the box office tent to weather the storm. As the band continued to play, the audience continued to grow and soon the tent was packed shoulder to shoulder with folks enthralled with the sounds of Scythian. “That year made them a MerleFest favorite, and they haven’t missed a festival since. This is just one example of the kind of excitement a special MerleFest moment can bring,” says Kathy Gray, Director of Events and Hospitality.
On Saturday evening at MerleFest 2009, the second highly anticipated Hillside Album Hour was hosted by The Waybacks and featured the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” with EmmyLou Harris turning in a surprise performance of “Wild Horses.” Also joining The Waybacks were Sam Bush on electric guitar and lead singer John Cowan. As usual, the hillside was packed with delighted music fans who gathered to find out what album that would be featured, which is always a closely held secret until the show begins.
Music icon Linda Ronstadt made her first appearance by closing the festival on a high note with a performance of traditional mariachi songs on the Watson Stage. She was joined by the Grammy-winning Mariachi Los Camperos de Nati Cano for a set of songs from her 1987 release, “Canciones de Mi Padre,” sung entirely in Spanish.
As the economic recession had harsh effects on the nation, it also had a bitter impact on the festival. MerleFest 2009 was the first year that more tickets were given away than were sold. This led to a serious evaluation of the festival’s future. It was an extremely rough time for MerleFest as hard decisions had to be made. As a fundraiser, the WCC Endowment Corporation had to assess what to do to get back on track. With the support and understanding from the community, sponsors, vendors and media, the festival was able to turn things around in 2010. And, WOW, did things turn around. The weather was rosy, the lineup stellar, and the fans were destined for fun. A new day awakened for MerleFest.
Performers who turned in riveting performances included Doc and Richard Watson, Elvis Costello and the Sugarcanes, Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Rangers, The Avett Brothers, Dierks Bentley, Little Feat, Great Big Sea, Rhonda Vincent & the Rage, Scythian, The Travelin’ McCourys, and many more. As usual on Saturday, a sea of fans enjoyed another great Hillside Album Hour hosted by The Waybacks who played every song on The Beatles’ album “Abbey Road.” Joining The Waybacks were Sarah Dugas, Shannon Whitworth, Byron House, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale and Elvis Costello. Other significant performers on the lineup included Zac Brown Band, making their first official MerleFest appearance after attending as a fan for a number of years, and Taj Mahal, who MerleFest had courted for years and finally got him to Wilkesboro.
One special memory from 2010 was Steve Martin & the Steep Canyon Rangers ending their set with a bluegrass rendition of Martin’s classic spoof “King Tut.”
At this point MerleFest was receiving so many requests from students wanting to perform on stage that the festival expanded the Youth Showcase at the Little Pickers Stage. This is not a contest; it is an opportunity for youth ages 16 and under to display their skills on stage at the festival.
Story continues and ends on Tuesday.
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/.