Merlefest, The Assembly, the aftermath (part 1)

I'm back! Temporarily, to tie a few loose ends

I put this newsletter on hiatus in part to allow time to research, report, and write a major feature story for The Assembly about Merlefest, one of the happiest places on Earth (and less expensive to visit than any Disney resort!).

The story was published Oct. 24. I’m very happy with it. A link is here. You may get to read it for free, or you may be asked to subscribe first. I heartily suggest paying at least $3 to get a month of this wonderful publication. Maybe I can drum up some business for the owner, Kyle Villemain!

Travis Dove’s photography and Taylor Le’s design are stunning. Hope you enjoy all of it.

Kyle commissioned a story of maybe 3,500-4,000 words. I sent him twice that much material. A lot had to go, and it was easier for Kyle and his editors to cut whole sections rather than moderately trim everything.

A handful of sources who were very generous with their time and who provided essential information didn’t appear in the story. I want to make that right, at least as much as I can.

I’m going to publish what didn’t make the final cut here, in a series of newsletters. They’ll all be available to share widely. I hope to have the remaining entries out by mid-November. Look for them in your email boxes, and share, share, share!

Meantime, Kyle did a little Q&A with me to follow up the story. He added it to his twice weekly newsletter. The text is below. Enjoy!

Last Sunday, we published Rick Henderson's examination of Merlefest, the sprawling music festival in Wilkesboro, North Carolina. We had a lot of folks share and chime in. Merlefest clearly means a lot to many people. So, on a relatively quiet Halloween, we're taking another break from politics and talking again with Rick about the behind-the-scenes of his reporting and the community he found at Merlefest. 

"Playing Above Its Weight"
Merlefest, a famous and eclectic music festival in Wilkes County, is one of the area's few institutions that has stood the test of time and lifted up its community. Its future success will depend on keeping the evolving and sprawling festival young

Q&A with Rick Henderson

The Assembly: Your story for us started at Sewerfest, a niche pocket of Merlefest. How'd you find it?

Henderson: I had heard about Sewerfest since the first time I attended Merlefest, in 2007. But I'd never imagined how large and well-organized the place is. I knew photographer Travis Dove and I had to spend some time there.

Some of the Sewerfest regulars never go to the main music festival. They hang out at the campground and jam and visit with their friends. The space can handle up to 3,000 people, or about as many people as live in Wilkesboro year-round. It's remarkable.

The Assembly: There's a tension in your piece between a more purist, narrow version of Merlefest and a bigger tent version. The latter seem to be winning.

Henderson: Yes, it's a big tent, but the festival never has neglected its roots. Doc Watson's repertoire included a century's worth of American music, encompassing gospel, country, show tunes, rockabilly, Motown, and even progressive rock. He recorded a cover of the Moody Blues' "Nights in White Satin." It's hard to find any variety of folk or popular music he didn't play.

It's also the case that Merlefest is, and always was meant to be, a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College. The folks there need to sell tickets, so they want to attract headliners who have appeal outside a hardcore folk or bluegrass audience.

The blend of big-ticket performers and lesser-known acts playing the same weekend can lead to some delightful, unexpected collaborations.

The Waybacks have performed a classic rock album, start to finish, Saturday afternoon, for the past 15 years. The "Hillside Album Hour" draws an overflow crowd to its stage. Sam Bush joins the Waybacks every year. Elvis Costello, Emmylou Harris, John Oates, Joan Osborne, Tommy Emmanuel, and Susan Tedeschi are a few of the people who've sat in for at least one song during one of the sets.

Still, you see plenty of traditional music, even on the large stages. Roy Book Binder, a Piedmont blues player, has performed at every Merlefest since 1990. For more than a decade, he's emceed one day of sets featuring other old-time blues and gospel players, many of whom also play on the Watson or Cabin stages in the main outdoor "theater."

On the festival's first day during a Cabin Stage set, Book Binder said that Merlefest highlights traditional acoustic blues music more than any other music festival in the country, if not the world.

The Assembly: What's your favorite anecdote that was left on the cutting room floor?

Henderson: So many great ones, a lot of them surrounding the first festival. They've been told before. An excellent history of the festival was in the Wilkes Journal-Patriot.

My favorite "original" had to be from Mary Lew Johnston, who met with me at Sewerfest and was featured in the story.

Mary Lew was a student at Wilkes Central High School in 1989, the festival's second year. Her journalism teacher, Johnny Elledge, rigged up some press credentials and told his students to “go over to Merlefest and interview people.”

The “press pass” got her and a friend backstage. Elledge told them he’d heard a rumor that Jerry Garcia was going to be there. The two students were on the lookout.

“We talked to Ricky Skaggs and a couple of other people. We couldn’t get in to see Doc because he was busy,” she said. They walked to the deck behind the stage, and “sure enough, there was Jerry Garcia.”

He was talking to a couple of other musicians and the two teenagers approached him, asking for a photo. He graciously obliged.

“He was as nice as he could be,” she said. “We told him we were with the journalism class at the high school. He said, ‘That’s great, y’all have a good time. I need to talk with these other people.’”

They thanked him again and rushed to the Eckerd’s Drug Store to get the film developed. “It was like waiting for Christmas,” she said.

When the photos were ready, she said they couldn’t wait to show it to their teacher. “Look, Mr. Elledge, we got a picture with Jerry Garcia!"

He looks at it and goes, ‘Girls, that’s Dave Grisman.’” It probably wasn't the first or last time the curly-haired mandolinist and the Grateful Dead founder were mistaken for one another, but it's the sort of story you hear about Merlefest.

The Assembly: Your last piece for us was about election reform -- politics through and through. You're now spending your time a little differently. How's the view from outside the political wormhole?

Henderson: I've been writing about the ways community and cultural institutions have tried to bounce back from the COVID pandemic. It's been tough, because the virus apparently isn't interested in cooperating. Some organizations never will recover completely. I've put my Substack newsletter on hold temporarily until the pandemic subsides even more.

Telling the stories of people who are trying to enrich the lives of others has been much more gratifying than explaining the ins and outs of public policy and partisan conflict — especially in today's political climate.

I made the change in part because honest discussion about competing ideas has been replaced by insults and vilification of anyone who diverges from a partisan script. The vitriol is exhausting and toxic.

The change in focus has forced me to develop a network of sources from scratch. The list of contacts I've developed over three decades hasn't been very useful. I've made a lot of cold calls and introduced myself to strangers who've never read political or policy publications.

Once we break the ice, though, they're usually happy to have their good works promoted. Doing it is a pleasure.

More to come soon! For now, here’s one of the rising stars of this scene, Sierra Farrell, on the Watson Stage, with a decidedly different take on a Charlie Poole/Flatt & Scruggs classic.