How to keep the current customers happy while also attracting newcomers? It's a bit unflattering and unfair to think of MerleFest as a product and its attendees as customers, but the MerleFest moniker certainly has strong brand-name recognition, and its organizers do face the challenge of ensuring that the "regulars" keep returning year after year while at the same time attracting fresh faces.
The inaugural MerleFest took place a decade and a half ago, in April 1988, a little more than two years after Merle Watson, son of acoustic-music legend Doc Watson (and, like his father, one of the best finger-picking guitarists on the planet), died in a tractor accident. The idea to raise money for a memorial garden to honor Merle evolved into a plan for a multi-day festival showcasing the kind of music loved by the Watsons, and this led to the first MerleFest. Four thousand acoustic-music lovers, many of them undoubtedly fans of, even friends of, Doc and Merle Watson, watched New Grass Revival and other bluegrass and traditional acts perform on the stage of the John A. Walker Center on the campus of Wilkes Community College and on the deck of two flatbed trucks.
From those humble roots, an honest-to-goodness musical juggernaut has sprung (although, granted, the words "roots music" and "juggernaut" go together about like "heavy metal" and "pickin' circle"). A couple of trucks and one indoor stage have turned into over a dozen outdoor stages; crowds are now close to 20 times the size of that initial gathering of 4000. In contrast to 1988's handful of performers, the 2003 roster numbers 99 at last count, a roll call that includes Ralph Stanley & the Clinch Mountain Boys, Ricky Skaggs & Kentucky Thunder, Donna the Buffalo, Asleep At the Wheel and, as always, Arthel "Doc" Watson.
MerleFest director Jim Barrow has witnessed this phenomenal growth, and among other things, he and his staff are responsible for keeping the faithful satisfied and bringing fresh faces to the grounds of Wilkes Community College come late April. When asked about the unenviable task of properly blending a little bit of the new with a lot of the time-tested, Barrow explained, "We look at what our festival attendees are asking for on the MerleFest Talk Page and in our surveys," referencing the discussion board available on the MerleFest Web site and questionnaires for concert-goers. "We keep our ear to the ground by reading the trade publications and seeing live music as often as possible. We talk to other professionals in the music business and get their opinions on what's new and fresh, and we watch the radio charts."
I don't press that last point, so I can only guess that, based on most years' line-ups, Barrow and company watch the radio charts and then pick primarily what's not getting played on commercial country stations. (Believe me, that's not a criticism.) That said, a few years back festival organizers did draw plenty of complaints for bringing an exceptionally rock-chart-friendly act to MerleFest: Hootie & the Blowfish.
"We sometimes like to throw a wildcard like Hootie & the Blowfish into the mix to keep things interesting. Whatever reaction we get from our attendees is a good reaction," Barrow said. It was a move that met the goal of drawing some people who were not previously familiar with MerleFest, and it also allowed detractors to see the mega-selling Hootie in a different light. "Many of those who initially complained came back after the festival admitting that they were wrong," recalled Barrow. "It worked here. It was an acoustic set with Doc Watson, Chris Thile and Pete Wernick joining the band in a jam," referring to Merle's finger-picking father, the mandolin whiz kid from Nickel Creek and the banjo master, respectively.
So is MerleFest typically on target? Durham's Mark O'Donnell, a veteran of six MerleFests, thinks so. "What keeps me coming back, in spite of the larger and larger crowds that might otherwise be off-putting?" he asks himself on cue. "The chance to discover new talent I'd never heard before like Steve Earle at my first MerleFest and rediscover old talent that I had mistakenly written off like Chris Smither. The chance to see old heroes like Jesse Winchester and new heroes like Gillian Welch and David Rawlings."
Nine-timer Jim McKelvey of Hillsborough agrees. Thanks to MerleFest, he's discovered such performers as Welch, Iris Dement, Holly and Barry Tashian, Pat Alger, Martin Simpson and Darrell Scott, often rather early in their careers. And McKelvey is a one-man testament to MerleFest's ability to keep the regulars happy and also bring in new folks. "I started going to MerleFest alone and sleeping in my car in 1993," he says. "Slowly, friends and relatives started to come with me. This year we have 15 reserved seats and are renting six motel rooms."
For information, including a full schedule, on this year's MerleFest, call (800) 343-7857 or visit the Web site: www.merlefest.org.
Performing at MerleFest
In the spirit of the old and the new, here are brief profiles of six artists, three veterans and three first-timers, who will be performing at this year's MerleFest.
It makes perfect sense that a repackaged collection of Guy Clark's late '70s and early '80s material was titled Craftsman. It's easy to imagine Clark working and reworking a song, like a chunk of wood on a lathe, until it's perfect. You can count on two things when Clark is at MerleFest: He'll cover a song written by his dear, late friend Townes Van Zandt, and he'll get one of the loudest reactions of the festival when, during his tremendous "Dublin Blues," he sings this verse: "I have seen the David/I have seen the Mona Lisa too/I have heard Doc Watson play 'Columbus Stockade Blues'."
Emmylou Harris' career reflects the twisting road that country music has traveled over the last 30 years. From her start as Gram Parsons' Cosmic Americana harmonizing partner in the early '70s, Harris went on to land a number of songs at the top of the country charts, beginning with her cover of Buck Owens' "Together Again" in 1976. In 1995, her Daniel Lanois-produced album Wrecking Ball confused some longtime fans while earning her plenty of new ones. These days she's assumed the position of an alt-country patron saint of sorts, along with such artists as Steve Earle and Dave Alvin. I saw her at the Landmine Free World show at the BTI Center this past fall, and her voice and presence were as stunning as ever.
As a traveler in bluegrass, country-rock and progressive music circles, Peter Rowan has the widest-ranging resume of anybody at MerleFest. In the mid-'60s, he was lead singer and guitarist in Bill Monroe's Blue Grass Boys before going on to Earth Opera, Sea Train, Old and In the Way, the Rowans, the Mexican Free Air Force and others groups. One of his pet projects these days is called Reggaebilly, which teams some of Jamaica's finest reggae musicians with ace bluegrass pickers such as Rowan and Dobro hero Jerry Douglas. And the man wrote "Panama Red," which will mean something if you were at least 12 during the hippie era.
Dale Ann Bradley
Kentucky's Dale Ann Bradley and her band Coon Creek have made a name for themselves in the bluegrass world with both strong, original writing and an adventurous taste in covers, having tackled such songs as U2's "I Still Haven't Found What I Was Looking For" and Stealer's Wheel's "Stuck in the Middle with You." But foremost is Bradley's voice, which inspired No Depression's Jon Weisberger to write: "You could listen for hours to its clear, steady tone, her gentle, distinctive phrasing, the way she delicately anticipates or lingers behind the song's pulse."
Jimmie Dale Gilmore
Jimmie Dale Gilmore may be a MerleFest rookie, but he's a longtime dues-payer in the roots music world. He began honing his unique, semi-mystical sound (memorably dubbed "Om on the Range") alongside fellow Texans Joe Ely and Butch Hancock in the legendary Flatlanders. Gilmore's solo work has revealed him to be a gifted interpreter of songs written by everybody from Hank Williams and Willis Alan Ramsey to Kurt Weill and Mudhoney, his lonesome, otherworldly voice cutting like the whistle of a 2 a.m. train. Jimmie Dale Gilmore could be sitting right next to you and his voice would still sound half a mile away.
Red Stick Ramblers
Southern Louisiana's Red Stick Ramblers are six young guys with, shall we say, mature musical tastes. They specialize in Cajun fiddle tunes, Western Swing, and traditional jazz from the '20s and '30s, calling on (if not actually channeling) the ghosts of Dewey Balfa, Bob Wills and Django Reinhardt. Yes, you will dance.