Started in 1988, MerleFest is an annual festival held in Wilkesboro, N.C., named in honor of musician Merle Watson who was killed in a tractor accident in 1985.
I've lived in North Carolina since 1998, but have never made it up to MerleFest until this past weekend. I made the hour-and-a-half drive up from Charlotte on Saturday morning and arrived at Wilkesboro Community College around 1 p.m.
I tried to catch Bearfoot at the Walker Center, but it was much like a quest to the dark side of the moon. By the time I walked what felt like miles to get there, the audience as filing out of the auditorium. No problem - I'd have another opportunity to see them that night.
With those plans scrapped, I wandered back toward the main stage to see Shannon Whitworth on the Cabin Stage at 2:15 p.m. Trying to find out how to get to the stage with my photo pass in order to snap a few pictures was a challenge in itself. I asked two volunteers at the entrance to the seating area who told me they had no idea where I could go. I asked the next two volunteers at a side gate, who also had no idea and directed me toward the "seating information" tent. The four people in the tent had no ideas either. I made my way up front where I was finally directed the correct area and proceeded to check out part of her set. Her music is a variation of country with more of a roots influence.
From there, I made my way back across campus to see The Lee Boys tearing it up on the Hillside Stage. The group's infectious energy was only slowed down when they asked for it for example, during the slow and secular "Amazing Grace."
After grabbing a bite to eat I commend the festival on having reasonably priced food, and a good variety of it too I headed over to the Creekside Stage to hear Mando Mania. This was a gathering of mandolin players that included Tony Williamson, Sam Bush, Mike Compton, Dominick Leslie, Rebecca Lovell and Jason Norris. The skill the players displayed was truly impressive.
Speaking of which, it should be said that bluegrass fans are downright rabid when it comes to the music. Bluegrass t-shirts were out in full force, as were plenty of musicians with their instruments in hand. Jam sessions were held across the campus grounds in just about every corner. You could easily spend a day listening to the "amateurs" wherever they gathered.
I caught part of the set by The Greencards before wandering around the vendors and checking out all there was for sale hoops, clothing, jewelry in what looked like the bluegrass version of "Shakedown Street."
Larkin Poe was on the Creekside Stage at 5:15 p.m. The band, which is made up of two-thirds of the Lovell Sisters, don't have quite the same energy or harmonies, but they're entertaining and talented just the same. I had caught the Lovell Sisters at Bonnaroo last year, so it was interesting to see the difference in the band since sister Jessica left after getting married and going to school. Rebecca and Megan remain and continue to hold the music tightly where they left off. Rebecca, on guitar and mandolin, has talent and vocals beyond her 18 years. Megan is quite skilled at the dobro and together with their band they performed songs from their own EP, from the Lovell Sisters and even two covers of Dylan and Hendrix.
At 6:15 p.m. on the main stage, Doc Watson performed a number of songs including a few covers of his own as he was joined by Sam Bush, Richard Watson, T. Michael Coleman, Mitch Greenhill and Jeff Little. At the end of his performance, he was given an honorary doctorate from Berklee College of Music.
Wylie and the Wild West performed on the Cabin Stage next as the stage was being set up for one of the night's headliners.
Steve Martin and Steep Canyon Rangers performed a one-hour set that was nearly identical in songs and banter to the group's Knight Theatre concert last October. The group ended with "Orange Blossom Special" before performing a bluegrass version of Martin's classic "King Tut." The group is musically proficient I was only disappointed that Martin's chatter between songs was pretty much the same as he said at the Charlotte concert six months ago. Perhaps, for him, it more like a comedy "routine" than an "improv" performance.
Alaska's Bearfoot was on the Cabin Stage next, offering some easy-to-listen to Americana/bluegrass.
The main stage was closed by Elvis Costello and The Sugarcanes, which included Jerry Douglas on dobro. The band was musically solid, but I've never been a huge fan of Costello's nasally vocals. As the band played on, I made my way toward the exit...
I was set to go back on Sunday, but a poor shoe choice for the walking on Saturday led to sore feet and a much needed day of rest. Sunday's show was to be highlighted by a main stage performance by The Avett Brothers.