A reggae horn player from Texas sits in the light of the campfire, reading his new book of bluegrass standards. In a moment he'll look over to his new friend, a traditional mandolin player from Georgia, and with a nod he'll burst into his first ever take on "Blackberry Blossom" at a hundred miles an hour. In this moment, both of their musical careers will change. Ephraim Owens is at MerleFest playing trumpet with Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae. Along with his saxophone playing bandmate Mark Wilson, who used to play with Burning Spear, they found their way to our campsite to mix with the bluegrass and folk musicians who flock to MerleFest each year. They were hoping to expand their musical palettes, and while witnessing their inspiration and rebirth, I couldn't help but think this is exactly what music festivals are for.
MerleFest was started 17 years ago by bluegrass flatpicking legend Doc Watson as a tribute and homage to his late son and bandmate Merle. Over the years, it's grown to become the largest, most wide-ranging Americana music festival in the world. This year they set a new 4-day attendance record with 82,500 fans. Grasping the full scope of the festival is nearly impossible, as no less than 13 stages are bursting with music all day long, pumping out everything from bluegrass, folk, and country to rock, reggae and zydeco. There is truly no festival in the world like MerleFest.
Since it's the first bluegrass festival of the season, there's an extra energy in the air as old musician friends see each other for the first time in months, and get to share what they've been working on over the winter. The same goes for the fans, who gather in pickin' tents set up throughout the festival for impromptu jams. The campsites are another site of endless musical opportunities, as pickers roam from fire to fire seeking new people to play with. MerleFest also places a heavy emphasis on community outreach, giving away huge numbers of free tickets and inviting the town to become part of the festival. Many of the food and art booths are staffed by local community groups from the Boy Scouts to the Volunteer Firemen. It all results in a unique setting where the music can flourish and the people can relax and enjoy the inspiration.
Things got rolling on Thursday afternoon with a wide-open jam session hosted by dobro player Tut Taylor. MerleFest likes to ease into things, featuring a mere 5 stages for the first day. The main Watson Stage was lit up by the Dry Branch Fire Squad, the WaiFS and Pine Mountain Railroad as the sun began to set on the first day of the festival. MerleFest always features brief Cabin Stage performances while artists set up their gear on the Watson Stage. Tim O'Brien ran through a 20-minute set of his traditional sounds before wunderkind Jerry Douglas unleashed an hour of dobro fury on the crowd. Then it was time for Doc's nightly tribute song to Merle, which culminates with the line, "Merle's not around to pick with anymore." It's ironic that Merle's sad fate has led to a musical celebration of international proportions, but I can't think of anything that would make him more proud.
Next up was a brief performance by the amazing Kruger Brothers. These Swiss-born bluegrass veterans have recently moved to America, settling where else but in MerleFest's hometown of Wilkesboro, NC. It seems only natural for them to bring their furious energy to the land where bluegrass was born. Featuring Jens Kruger on banjo, Uwe Kruger on guitar, and Joel Landsberg on bass, they tore through a re-arranged, shuffled up version of "I Know You Rider" and Jimmie Driftwood's "Tennessee Stud." They wrapped up with what can only be described as the pure musical onslaught of "Waterfalls," a tune featuring one of the most frenzied banjo attacks I'd ever witnessed. A brief performance by Bela Fleck led into the headlining set by the Indigo Girls to wrap up the first evening of MerleFest.
Friday morning got started with the masterful guitar duo of Russ Barenberg and Bryan Sutton, challenging and inflaming each other with their deft fretted fireworks. The string-band rock-and-roll and raucous exuberance of Old Crow Medicine Show followed, ripping through an energetic set which included "Big Time in the Jungle." Next it was time for one of the most musically adept and astonishing performances of the entire weekend. Appearing on the Watson Stage was the duo of Bela Fleck & Edgar Meyer performing an hour of ethereal, intricate classical music. Both musicians have danced across the lines seperating bluegrass and classical music before, but watching the majestic interplay between them live was a truly wondrous experience. Their banjo and bass binge included both "Bug Tussle" and the set-closing "Woolly Mammoth" from their new album Music for Two. They even dipped their toes into more accessible waters with a run through the traditional "Arkansas Traveler."
Over on the Creekside Stage, Doc Watson was picking through some tunes with his old friends Jack Lawrence on guitar and T. Michael Coleman on bass. The band also featured Doc's grandson Richard Watson, Merle's son, on guitar as they ran through classics including "Shady Grove." Next up were the mandolin and fiddle extrapolations of Mike Marshall & Darol Anger. They dedicated Bill Monroe's "Down in the Willow Garden" to Doc as they flew through flurries of notes in their unquenchable thirst for instrumental inspiration.
Bela Fleck followed with a brief Cabin Stage set, where his old New Grass Revival bandmate Pat Flynn unleashed a monstrous guitar solo in "Mother Lode" from Flynn's new album reQuest. Fleck then told the crowd that he had something special on stage with him which belonged to all of them. "This is John Hartford's banjo," he said, removing the legendary late musician's instrument from its case. Playing through a couple of Hartford songs plus an early 1900s ragtime tune, the music sounded simply perfect as Fleck sat on the front porch of the log cabin, picking and grinning in the afternoon sunshine.
Following Fleck's set came the elegant enmeshing sounds of guitarist Russ Barenberg, dobro player Jerry Douglas & bassist Edgar Meyer. First turned loose on the world with the 1994 album Skip, Hop & Wobble, the seamless blending of their tones immediately became legendary. From thick grooves and massive solos to soft moments of tender teamwork, they seem to endlessly bend and shape the music to their will. They opened with the driving rhythm of "Monkey Bay" on their way to Barenberg's sublime paean "Our Time." The reflective pensiveness of "The Hymn of Ordinary Motion" led to Meyer's "Early Morning" and the laid-back groove of "The Travels of Mr. Hulot." The set continued with "Pushed Too Far" and Barenberg's "A Touch of the Hidalgo" before wrapping up with the driving rhythm of "Why Don't You Go Back to the Woods." Meyer turned from gentle plucking to downright slapping of his stand-up bass as the band excised all remaining energy in finishing out their set.
Billy Jonas rolled out his guitar, homemade percussion and childlike glee for a set of upbeat folky originals. Jonas plays almost every year at MerleFest, sharing his quirky songwriting sensibilities in a show often aimed for kids. His set included the innately spiritual "God is In," the double-entendre of "Late," and a half-gospel song about trying to get out of a speeding ticket. The duo Zoe Speaks even jumped onstage to add guitar and vocals to help close out the set.
Meanwhile, the Americana stage was bursting with the modern energy of Wisechild, a new band boasting an array of accomplished instrumentalists. The group features Luke Bulla on guitar, fiddle & vocals, Casey Driessen on fiddle & mandocaster, Matt Mangano on bass and Pasi Leppikangas on drums. Their dual fiddle attack lit up the intro to "Working on a Building" to end their set, while over on the Traditional Stage Doc Watson was holding court with the Howard brothers. On the Watson Stage the Tony Rice Unit was churning out their high-speed guitar and dobro instrumentals, including a turn through George Gershwin's eternal "Summer Time."
One of the most endearing features of MerleFest is their penchant for scheduling offbeat and exciting combinations of performers together. Such was the setting for the "Hillside Jam" featuring Bela Fleck on banjo, Peter Rowan on guitar, Sam Bush on mandolin, Jerry Douglas on dobro and Bryn Bright on bass. Rowan led the all-star band through a set of varying intensity and tempo, keeping the crowd entranced with every note. Mark O'Connor's Hot Swing Trio took over the Watson Stage as the master fiddler ranged from pulsating tempos to sweetly organic ballads.
Up next was the zydeco-flavored worldbeat rock of festival stalwarts Donna the Buffalo. They opened with "Movin' On" and the bouncy pop-funk of "Blue Skies" before rolling on with "Way Back When" and "Mississippi." The philosophical notions and anthemic choruses of "Ancient Arms" led to the slow, shuffling groove of "Rocking Horse" and the chunky changes and sunshine sing-along of "Family Picture." The set continued with "Pretty Boy Floyd" and the revelatory roots-rock revivalism of "Conscious Evolution." The jam led into their own version of "Working on a Building" to finish up the set.
Hot Tuna, featuring Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady from Jefferson Airplane, appeared on the Creekside Stage to share their bluesy moods on songs including "Hesitation Blues" and "Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning" before finishing things off with "I Know You Rider." Guitarist Bryan Sutton turned his Cabin Stage set into an all-star performance, inviting Bela Fleck to join him on guitar rather than his customary banjo. Doc Watson came out for a song before Fleck returned with Tim O'Brien to add his frenzied banjo antics to a pounding version of Bob Dylan's "Tombstone Blues." They wrapped up the set with a frantic rendition of Bill Monroe's "Brown County Breakdown" as the Sam Bush Band opened right up on the Watson Stage next door. Before he was a mandolin maestro, Bush was a fiddle prodigy, winning several competitions while still a teenager. He opened his set with the fiddle frenetics of a John Hartford song, and led his band through a rousing set of modern bluegrass rock.
Over in the Dance Tent, Donna the Buffalo was preparing for their second set of the day. Joined by Tim O'Brien, Pete Wernick, Casey Driessen and Dirk Powell, they kept the crowd jumping and moving till late in the evening with their endless energy and infectious enthusiasm. By the time they finished, the only music left floating over the festival grounds was over on the Watson Stage, where Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae were playing a very special set featuring the Burning Spear Horns. Rowan has played with reggae bands before, including his own Reggaebilly at prior MerleFests, but never before has he assembled a group of musicians that can groove like this one. The crowd was swaying and swinging in the night as they brought the island ideals and endless rhythms of reggae to the western Carolina mountains. With two days of music still ahead, it was the perfect way to cap off the evening and celebrate what was still to come.
Day three began with a set by the Gourds before leading into one of the most anticipated shows of the weekend. Mark O'Connor was headlining an Americana Stage slot joined by Nickel Creek's Chris Thile on mandolin, Bryan Sutton on guitar and Jon Burr on bass. Tearing through a set of old swing and progressive bluegrass, these acoustic masters led a blistering charge through the roots of modern string music. Barenberg, Douglas & Meyer returned with another set of elegant expressionism, running through Barenberg's wistfully sweet "Open Arms" on the way to the finespun fingerwork and spiraling melodies of "Big Bug Shuffle." The delicate Celtic runs of Barenberg's "Through the Gates" led to the traditional West Virginia fiddle tune "Big Sciota." Picked through with extraordinary dexterity, this song perfectly showcases the virtuoso capabilities of these three master musicians. They closed the set with "Emphysema Two Step" as Peter Rowan & Crucial Reggae featuring the Burning Spear Horns was setting the Dance Tent aglow. Turning in another incendiary performance, their rotund reggae romps were the perfect way to ease into the afternoon.
It's a beautiful day and MerleFest is absolutely overflowing. Jorma Kaukonen was joined by Sam Bush and bassist Byron House for a bluesy set on the Hillside Stage. Meanwhile, Edgar Meyer was soaring through a solo set of classical works. Performed entirely on his stand-up bass, Meyer's originals blended perfectly with the composers of old as he bowed and plucked his way through the music. Bach's first cello suite was a particular highlight of this amazing set. The rootsy country-rock of Jim Lauderdale was up next, as he unveiled his first of three sets throughout the weekend. Though he often plays solo, and was joined by Donna the Buffalo as his band for a set the following day, he'd assembled a different group of musicians behind him for this show.
Natalie MacMaster and Mark O'Connor had assembled for a dual-fiddle blitz against the crowd. Alison Brown's banjo bravado followed, diving deep into a duo with fiddler extraordinaire Stuart Duncan as they wrapped things up with "I'm Naked and I'm Going to Glasgow." Over on the Creekside Stage, Gillian Welch & David Rawlings were working through their own version of Jimi Hendrix' "Manic Depression." A huge crowd assembled for a heartfelt, musically charged performance by Nickel Creek. Gliding through songs including Carrie Newcomer's "I Should've Known Better," they displayed a solidity and musical maturity far beyond their years.
Patty Loveless brought her country-rock and honky-tonk to the Watson Stage, while Tara Nevins and Jim Miller from Donna the Buffalo were hosting an old-time music show with some of their friends. Focusing more on groove than solos, old-time music features fancy footwork by the folks in the crowd as the musicians on stage dig in deep to drain out the sound. The audience especially enjoyed the chance to hear their old-time take on the classic "Going Down the Road Feeling Bad." Peter Rowan's Texas Trio Featuring Tony Rice was playing up in the Walker Center, adding Rice's flamboyant guitar to Rowan's plaintive vocal stylings.
Banjo legend Earl Scruggs was up next, leading his Family & Friends through an exhilarating set of bluegrass acrobatics. They even played a poignant version of Bob Dylan's timeless "You Ain't Going Nowhere." Country superstar Vince Gill played some tunes with Scruggs before appearing later in the evening with his own band. An extra special treat was in store for the audience at this point. I think it's safe to say that absolutely no one in attendance expected to see Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones come out and play mandolin on two songs with Gillian Welch, but that's exactly what happened. Apparently Jones decided he felt like seeing some music, and made the trip to MerleFest to hang out and sit in with some of the best string musicians in the world. After this surprising development, guitarist Rawlings helped Welch calm things back down with their exquisite interplay on "Throw Me a Rope."
All energy was now leading up to the Saturday night headliners. Playing their third set of the weekend, Donna the Buffalo hit the stage and burst straight into the optimistic outlook of "These are Better Days." The beautiful harmonies and rootsy rhythm of "Rock of Ages" led into a slow, churning cover of Bob Dylan's "Senor (Tales of Yankee Power)." The creeping sad slipperiness of "Seems to Want to Hurt This Time" was offset by the friendly familial funkiness of "Positive Friction." The band's lyrical and musical talents blended perfectly in the graceful poetry of "No Place Like the Right Time," which led to a set-closing, foot-stomping romp through "Funkyside." The crowd sailed off to their campsites for the night with the chorus still ringing in their ears: "In a trance of love / On the funky side." Some lucky festivalgoers had special tickets to the Midnight Jam up in the Walker Center, where the best of MerleFest gathers to pick through the latenight hours. In typical MerleFest fashion, the show went on for hours with the musicians and setlists being improvised right on the spot.
Sunday morning now and we all know how day 4 at a festival feels. It hurts but you keep going. Doc Watson & the Nashville Bluegrass Band woke everyone up with a 10 am set of gorgeous gospel tunes. Jim Lauderdale played an early show as his friends Tara Nevins & Jim Miller from Donna the Buffalo danced through another set of old-time tunes. Meanwhile, Sam Bush was raring to go on the Cabin Stage. Joined by Brad Davis on guitar and Byron House on bass, he chopped through the old New Grass Revival tune "Cold Sailor" and the title track to his 1998 album Howlin' at the Moon. He picked up his fiddle for the set-closing "Big Rabbit" which also featured an explosive guitar solo from Davis.
Former New Grass Revival singer John Cowan invited John Paul Jones out to play acoustic bass on the old NGR tune "Calling Baton Rouge." Sam Bush joined in on electric mandolin, and halfway through the song it turned into "Dazed and Confused," made authentic to the mountains with the inclusion of banjo, fiddle and mandolin solos. Over on the Creekside Stage, Charles Pettee & FolkPsalm were carving a unique nitch in the MerleFest schedule, performing original music to ancient sacred Hebrew poems. The Kruger Brothers laid down a medley of Doc Watson tunes before raging through the labyrinthine corridors and complex re-arrangements of "Orange Blossom Spatial.". At one point they even landed on a Lynyrd Skynyrd tune, changing it on the spot to "Sweet Home Carolina."
The David Grisman Quintet checked in with a typically mesmerizing set of worldgrass and intricate instrumentals. Grisman threw the floodgates open wide at the end of his set, inviting a mandolin army on stage with him. Mandolinists including Sam Bush, Mike Marshall, Tony Williamson, and 14-year old prodigy Josh Pinkham gathered around to inspire and incite each other on the spot in a huge jam. Donna the Buffalo joined Jim Lauderdale once again for a celebratory afternoon set on the Hillside Stage before Roseanne Cash, Johnny's daughter, wrapped up the Watson Stage for the weekend with her beautiful blend of country pop. The last band standing were Reeltime Travelers, picking out their Appalachian string-band sound on the Traditional Stage.
A festival as large as MerleFest could never be fully covered by anything less than a team of reporters and a pack of sled dogs. Other artists who shared their hearts and talents with the audience over the weekend include the Two High String Band, The Avett Brothers, The Derailers, Bering Strait, Reckless Kelly, Mindy Smith, The Savoy-Doucet Cajun Band, Kelly Willis & Bruce Robison, Gospel Jubilators, Deer Clan Singers, and many more. MerleFest 2004 was a delight, in all the ways we've come to expect – amazing musicians, endless musical choices, beautiful mountains, nice people and great food. For 17 years now they've been putting on the best bluegrass/Americana festival on Earth. I only wish Merle Watson could be here to share it with us. It seems like just the kind of thing he would really enjoy.