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Published: 2004/06/30
by Katie Mavrich

Merlefest Live! The Best of 2003 – various artists

Welk Music Group 79766-2

Just three years after Eddy Merle Watson's sudden and tragic death in 1985, his father, legendary flat-picking guitarist Doc Watson, and Ralph Rinzler put together the first MerleFest at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The mission was simple enough: to host a benefit concert with a small number of acoustic artists playing in Merle's memory. Fast forward to the 16th annual MerleFest in 2003 — a four-day festival with a whopping 13 stages hosting more than 100 "Americana" artists.

The Americana genre itself was brought to life in 1995 by The Gavin Report, when they added the Americana Chart to the pages of their radio publication. It encompasses singer-songwriters, bluegrass,, roots, and folk artists. MerleFest 2003 showcased Americana artists Asleep at the Wheel, Guy Clark, Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Vassar's Jam, Donna the Buffalo, Emmylou Harris, Bella Fleck and the Flecktones, Etta Baker, and many, many more.

MerleFest Live! The Best of 2003 is a condensed version of the festival, with 15 artists and bands lending 18 tracks to the recording. Heavy in bluegrass and slower tunes, the old time country music sound runs rampant. Fiddles, banjos, and improvisational jams lend to the appeal. The recordings selected are incredibly clear and crisp, the audience is heard cheering and whistling in the background. From time to time you get artist commentary between tracks, part of the beauty of a live recording.

It is clear that those who selected the artists and songs for this collection weren't focused on commercialization and money, but more on capturing MerleFest for what it truly is — a festival of music dedicated to a great musician. While Donna the Buffalo's "Conscious Evolution" begins sounding extremely similar to George Thorogood's "Who Do You Love," the bands and artists on MerleFest Live don't receive airplay on America's Top 40 radio stations, and country music fans will delight in the rarer songs on the recording.

The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band thinks that "MerleFest is a great place to be," as they profess in "American Dream." They sing of tropical Jamaican vacations and a lack of money sounds of steel drums interspersed through out their acoustic melodies. The pace picks up in the next song, Mountain Heart's "John."

In an era where music festivals are overly commercialized and are losing touch with their purpose – to allow people with all sorts of different musical tastes together – it's comforting to know that there are festivals out there like MerleFest. While the first MerleFest raised money for a memorial garden in Merle's memory, today's keeps his memory alive and benefits the grounds that host it — those of Wilkes Community College.

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