It’s been twenty-six years since the late, great Doc Watson decided to throw a festival near his home in Deep Gap, NC, to honor the memory of his son Merle. The younger Watson died three years earlier in a tractor accident on the family farm but, before that, had been one of the most dexterous and influential guitar pickers of his generation. To honor him, Doc titled his festival Merlefest, and invited some of the finest bluegrass, folk, and old time players around. Since then, just about everyone who matters in the realm of folk, bluegrass, traditional country and Americana music has graced one of the Merlefest stages. Festival alumni include everyone from Dolly Parton to Carolina Chocolate Drops, Donna the Buffalo, Linda Ronstadt, the Avett Brothers, and Zac Brown Band.
This year, Merlefest welcomed the other Merle (Haggard, that is) to headline the festival. His Sunday afternoon set was heavy on classics, from “Mama Tried” to “Pancho and Lefty”. He kicked it off with “Silver Wings” and delivered with remarkable charisma from there. At 78 years old, Haggard is a living legend in his field, and the crowd met him with a standing ovation.
He wasn’t the only one to get a warm welcome. Todd Snider kept a hillside crowd’s attention through the weekend’s most assertive rainfall, complete with Woody Guthrie singalong at the end. Jim Lauderdale and his band were embraced in the same space later, albeit in the face of ample sunshine. North Carolina’s own Mandolin Orange let loose a beautiful string of harmony-laden tunes and Holly Williams, unfortunately relegated to a quite-brief set on the Cabin stage, easily won some new fans as well.
But, it was Old Crow Medicine Show who delivered the finest set of the festival, to these eyes and ears. Balancing a precarious blend of folk and bluegrass music, old time, and story-telling, the band encompassed all the things that fall under the Merlefest umbrella. Those Nashville boys danced and whooped and whirred about the main stage. They delivered tunes from each of their seven albums, plus new material, to boot. Among the new tunes was “Sweet Amarillo”, the second song they’ve more or less co-written with Bob Dylan. According to frontman Ketch Secor, Dylan was so impressed with what they did by turning his chorus “Rock Me Mama” into their megahit “Wagon Wheel,” he sent them another crop of lyrics he started and never finished. It’s impossible to know, of course, if “Sweet Amarillo” will have the same beloved-by-buskers-everywhere appeal as “Wagon Wheel,” but it delivered darn well on the Merlefest stage.
Other highlights included a stunning set from Carolina Chocolate Drops and a handful of memorable appearances by the reunited Duhks. The latter was swirling with excitement about their new album – due in May, but they were selling it at the festival store. They delivered a number of tunes from it, including a gorgeous cover of Eva Cassidy’s “Way Beyond the Blue”.
One of the most delightful surprises this year was the presence of Sheila Kay Adams and her husband Joe Penland, who took the stage in the Traditional Tent on the final day, for an hour of mountain stories and ballads. According to them, it was the first time such a set had been included in the Merlefest lineup, and hopefully it won’t be the last. Considering the festival’s homebase in the mountains of Western North Carolina, including some local tales and traditional ballad-singing seems about right. What’s more, Adams and Penland are terrific performers. Though they had to battle the sound from the main stage, which was pervading the entire festival grounds at that point, the pair delivered a rousing, entertaining collection of stories and songs.
All told, Merlefest 2014 was a fitting continuation of Doc’s festival vision. There are few gatherings in North America where traditional music is honored on this scale, in such a family friendly, tightly-organized environment. The diversity of stages – from the intimate Plaza and Traditional stages to the indoor theater, natural creek and hillside surroundings, and the enormous main stage flanked by giant screens – there is some kind of festival experience here to suit just about everyone. It’s no wonder Merlefest has enough momentum to already have a countdown going for year number twenty-seven.
**For more about MerleFest and to see great photos from this year’s festival, check out MerleFest on Facebook – HERE!**