Musicians love Merlefest, and Merlefest loves them back
Some conventional and unusual ways the festival showcases emerging artists
When I was gathering information about Merlefest for a lengthy feature The Assembly published in October, a lot of quality content didn’t make the cut. (Mea culpa: I had a 3,500-word assignment and wound up with nearly 8,000 words of material. After my initial cuts.)
These fine people deserve to have their stories told, too. I’ll do it over the next few weeks in a handful of posts based on separate themes.
The first one: Some of the ways Merlefest has served as a springboard to musicians’ careers. Special thanks to The Local Boys for their hospitality at Merlefest. They’re fine musicians, and great guys. Check ‘em out!
Playing at Merlefest is a bucket-list item for countless musicians, traditional and otherwise. Zac Brown said as much before he and his band played their first Merlefest, 2010. Much like the members of Hootie and the Blowfish, Brown had bought tickets to attend the festival long before they played there (Darius Rucker and his pals had their turn in 1999.)
The Kruger Brothers saw Doc and Merle Watson play in Switzerland, the Krugers’ native country, nearly 40 years ago. They met Doc backstage more than a decade later, in 1997, when they played their first Merlefest. The Krugers’ friendship with Doc and the allure of the Western North Carolina foothills convinced them to move to Wilkes County in 2002, where they’ve raised families.
The Krugers host a festival in downtown Wilkesboro each September (aside from the past two, of course), Carolina in the Fall. The Krugers agreed to postpone this year’s festival so Merlefest could go forward.
Merlefest also can be a ticket for fledgling artists looking for new and larger followings. Doc’s daughter Nancy overheard Old Crow Medicine Show when the band was busking in Boone, like her guitar legend father had decades earlier. She brought Doc to hear the raw, energetic young group play on the streets. He invited them to play Merlefest in 2000. The first large audience to hear a performance of “Wagon Wheel” may have been on the WCC campus.
Meanwhile, after several years struggling to build an audience, North Carolina’s Avett Brothers reportedly weren’t sure whether to continue as a group. They’d lobbied to play Merlefest 2004. If they got the gig, the band would continue. If not, they’d hang it up, go to college, start other lives. You know what happened.
The festival’s history features similar stories. The San Francisco-based Waybacks played their first gig in North Carolina at Gardner-Webb College, at Doc’s request. In a tribute to Doc recorded last year, guitarist James Nash said the band had 24 hours’ notice to get from the West Coast to Boiling Springs. With one exception, The Waybacks — whose repertoire includes progressive bluegrass, gypsy swing, psychedelic blues and be-bop — have played every Merlefest since 2002.
Their breakthrough year: 2006, when they supported Grateful Dead co-founder Bob Weir on the main Watson Stage. Weir joined the band for a few songs at their set on the Hillside Stage the next day. In 2008, the band used its hillside set to bring along a bunch of friends and reimagine a classic rock album, start to finish. The first: Led Zeppelin II.
The Hillside Album Hour became an annual hit. Fans claim spots on the hillside when the gates open Saturday morning. By showtime, the crowd has packed the seating area and filled the edges of the parking lot above. This year featured the late John Prine’s eponymous debut. The songwriting legend was scheduled to play Merlefest last year, in what would have been his fourth appearance. Prine was one of the first notable COVID casualties, dying of the virus April 7, 2020.
Another Merlefest discovery: Scythian, a Washington, D.C.-area band founded by Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka, sons of Ukranian immigrants. They began playing their supercharged mix of Celtic, Cajun, and Eastern European dance music in 2007 at Merlefest in the parking lot, jamming near the gate where shuttles discharged the fans who parked in off-campus lots.
B Townes, the festival’s founding director, saw the reaction Scythian got and invited them to play the next year. They’ve not missed a Merlefest since, typically playing several sets daily to frenetic crowds.
But Merlefest offers more traditional routes to discovery. For more than two decades, the festival has hosted a Friday “open mic” day, letting anyone sign up and play a few songs on the outdoor Plaza Stage with professional sound equipment. Since 2015, the festival has hosted a band competition. Merlefest’s artist relations director Steve Johnson scours the region’s clubs and special events, inviting a handful to each play a 15-minute set Saturday afternoon on that stage.
The Wilkes County-based Local Boys band judges the competition. Mandolinist Steven Davidson responded to a post on Facebook Messenger and invited me to hang out with them during the open mic Friday.
More than two decades ago, the Local Boys teamed up with dobro pioneer “Tut” Taylor, one of Doc’s contemporaries, to emcee events at the Plaza Stage. Tut passed away in 2015. The Local Boys keep the tradition going.
There weren’t many open mic participants. So the band took the opportunity to play a set. Helpful, since the group’s dobro and banjo players weren’t available to play at the rescheduled Merlefest. The other members — Davidson, guitarists John Aaron and Steve Holman, and bassist Jesse Chatin — had to figure out how to fill in the instrumental intros and breaks set aside for dobro and banjo. They had a full set scheduled Sunday on the Hillside Stage, so this was the perfect opportunity to rehearse with an audience.
Folks dropped by to hear the impromptu set. People constantly wander the campus, moving from one venue to another, stopping when they hear something they enjoy.
The band competition would fill the Plaza Stage space, Steve and Aaron said. It’s a chance to hear an emerging band before they break out. Competitors came from as far away as Nashville.
What’s the strangest instrument you’ve seen at a contest? I asked band members Friday. No one could answer on the spot. When I dropped by Saturday, they had it. The upright bass player for Raleigh-Wilmington-based band Into the Fog used a talk box (think Peter Frampton’s “Show Me the Way” or Joe Walsh in “Rocky Mountain Way”). It must have helped. Into the Fog won.
Part of the prize: Into the Fog played a full set Sunday morning on the Hillside Stage.
The band is, ahem, emerging from the fog. It was featured at the IBMA World of Bluegrass showcase in Raleigh at the end of September.
For 30 years, Merlefest has hosted a songwriting competition, named for Boone native Chris Austin, a guitarist who died in a 1991 plane crash along with other members of Reba McEntire’s band. Proceeds from contest entries help fund scholarships for WCC students.
Some notable names launched or advanced their careers by entering and potentially winning the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest: Gillian Welch won the first one. Other winners include Raleigh’s Tift Merritt, along with Adrienne Young and Molly Tuttle. The first-place finishers in each category — gospel/inspirational, bluegrass, country, and general — perform their songs on the Cabin Stage at a prime-time set.
Another unexpected perk for fans and musicians alike: Merlefest’s free printed program. “Dr. Banjo” Pete Wernick, who co-founded the legendary progressive bluegrass band Hot Rize and has run banjo and jam camps at Merlefest since 1991, told me the thick newsprint booklet (146 pages this year) has been irreplaceable publicity for the artists over the years.
Along with ads for local businesses, musical instruments and supplies, and band promotion, the program includes a history of the festival, maps of the campus, stage schedules, and brief biographies of all the scheduled musicians.
The bios are special. No other festival has offered a free memento with such detail, he said. It’s a reference work. Fans can browse for bands in different genres, ad hoc assemblies pulled together only for Merlefest, social media connections to the groups, or information about artists they missed at this Merlefest and should have seen.
“I know these things are all on [festival] apps now, but Merlefest does this better than anyone and has done so longer than anyone else,” he said.
The book is a keepsake. It’s another example of musicians loving Merlefest, and Merlefest loving them back.
Tickets for Merlefest 2022 (April 28-May 1) go on sale December 6. Initial lineups will be announced on that date, too. Stay tuned!
Doc Watson and Merlefest fans, get ready: Friday, April 8, three weeks before Merlefest, Robbie Fulks, David Grier, and Jack Lawrence will perform “Doc and Cover,” a tribute to Doc Watson’s music, storytelling, and connection to his audience and the Appalachian tradition.
A couple of months before that, Friday, Jan. 21, the Dan Tyminski Band will perform, supporting two new projects: a tribute to Tony Rice; and a bluegrass album. Tyminski, you probably know, was George Clooney’s voice as a Soggy Bottom Boy in “O Brother, Where Art Thou?” He’s also a longtime member of Alison Krauss and Union Station and a terrific performer in his own right.
The shows will be in Raleigh. Tickets for the general public go on sale Friday, and PineCone always keeps the prices reasonable.