By Twyla Twang
May 16, 2018
MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson. Held April 26-29 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., the festival is a celebration of “traditional plus” music. It comprises traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk and gospel and blues, and expanded to include Americana, classic rock and many other styles.
As a first-time attendee, I can attest y’all need to make this trip at some point in your life!
With four stages of music playing on opening day, the choice was clear to this lil’ cowgirl: Watson Stage. Also known as the main stage, the Watson Stage opened with the Kruger Brothers, a fine local bluegrass band by way of Switzerland. Watson himself once said, “The Kruger Brothers is just about as fine a band as I’ve ever played with. I love to play music with them.”
The clouds couldn’t hold out any longer. From a slight drizzle to straight-up rain; Merlefest attendees were tested, and the hearty fans prevailed. That’s about when Shinyribs took the stage. Anyone remember “The Gourds” out of Austin? They shook up every stage they played on from 1994-2013 with the help of their crazy front man, Kevin Russell. After The Gourds disbanded, Russell formed Shinyribs and is making more booty-shaking music with plenty of funk and soul wrapped into a great roots sound. (pic-ShinyRibs)
Following Shinyribs was Kris Kristofferson. Approaching his 82nd birthday next month, it was an honor to hear him sing his some of his classics (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”, “Jesus Was a Capricorn”, “Me and Bobby McGee”, “For the Good Times” “The Pilgrim”) as well as some mandatory Merle (Haggard!) with a full band. My spine tingled when I heard the first few words of “Sing Me Back Home.” It sounded like Merle himself! Turns out it was the youngest of his three sons, Ben. I’m unsure if the bone-chill I felt was from the cool rain or hearing Ben sing one of his father’s saddest and most beautiful songs, but the eeriness stayed with me during the entire set. Before the band broke into “Stay Here and Drink”, Kristofferson lamented “and we gotta do this in the rain!”. Appropriately enough, Kristofferson encored with “Please Don’t Tell Me How The Story Ends”. A Kris Kristofferson performance could rarely be considered uplifting, but it was certainly meaningful and poignant.
Robert Earl Keen was up next, giving Merlefesters a tasty mix of his heartfelt ballads like “Twisted Laurel” and “If I Were King” mixed in with his lighthearted and humorous numbers: “Five Pound Bass”, “Copenhagen” and “Hot Corn”. “I Gotta Go” began sweet and mellow and turned into one funky jam. Keen noted this song was written after hanging out with Levon Helm at Helm’s home. Any Keenf performance would not be complete without “The Road Goes on Forever” that closed his set. Mr. Keen was scheduled to be in the autograph tent after his performance, so you know Ms. Twang bellied up to that line! Keep in mind, everyone was billowed out in their frog toggs or rain ponchos. Standing next to me in line, a new friend, Ray Strutton, was asked how he’s doing by his approaching friends and mimicking a spacewalk, he replied “kind of lost in spaciousness”. Our giggling made it easier to hear the news that Keen wasn’t going to be able to sign autographs for us as he was fighting a sinus infection.
The closing act at the Watson Stage was none other than the fabulous Mavericks. The rain finally let up for us to shed our ponchos and dance in the mud! Raul Malo’s pipes were in fine form as the band played their unique fusion of roots music. The craft of using Latin beats with twang is mind-blowing to me. And the jamming! Malo cranked on his accordion with an intensity that seemed to fuel the engines of the band. Highlights: “Save the Last Dance for Me” magically transported me to a smoky dance hall, then Chuck Berry’s “You Never Can Tell” and “All You Do is Bring Me Down” If you’ve never seen The Mavericks live, you owe it to yourself to do so!
Stunned from variety and depth of music experienced all day, I was ready to hang up my boots for the night. But those Merlefest organizers know what they’re doing. Before exiting the festival, you have to pass by the dance stage. Thursday night brought a great dance band out of Trumansburg, N,Y., in Donna the Buffalo, who have been playing original roots music since 1989. Their sound is infused with elements of cajun, rock, folk, reggae, and country. With no rain, a great dance floor and groovy tunes, “The Herd”, fans of Donna the Buffalo, cut a big ol’ rug to close out day one.
Thirteen stages were open for the rest of the festival, starting as early as 9 a.m. and running as late as midnight. My pea-pickin’ brain shorted-out, but I was determined to catch as much music as possible. Hiking from stage to stage, the following acts were especially impressive: Scythian, called by Nashville’s Music City Roots as “what happens when rock star charisma meets Celtic dervish fiddling”. Yup, purty much. Flexigrass Jam featured David Halt, Rob Ickes & Trey Hensley, The Lonely Heartstring Band, Rosie & the Riveters and Presley Parker; so much talent on one stage and obviously enjoying the heck out of the collaborative spirit of a jam. And that was just the afternoon!
I sat in on the Chris Austin Songwriting contest hosted by Jim Lauderdale with judges Rodney Crowell, Andrew Marlin and Johnny Williams. With 1,041 songs entered, three were chosen for each of the following categories: Gospel, Country, Bluegrass and General. Winners were announced later that weekend and you may want to remember the names Amanda Fields & Tom Buller, out of Nashville. Their song “Whiskey Ain’t Got Nothin’ On You” was hands-down my favorite and won best Country song. It struck me how unnerving it would be to be both laying Merlefest for your first time and seeing Rodney Crowell sitting in the front row.
For the evening acts, it was back to the Watson Stage again as the lineup was: Mandolin Orange, Bela Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Rodney Crowell and Jamey Johnson closing out a mind-numbing musical excursion. A painful decision was made to see Mandolin Orange over Devil Makes Three as they were playing at the same time. Thank the Lawd we get to check out Devil Makes Three this Sunday, right in our own back yard! (at the Great Pinewood Bluegrass Festival, along with Mandolin Orange and others).
The purist and most tender sounds poured out over the North Carolina foothills during Mandolin Orange’s set. Those who caught them at the Zoo Bar in 2014 or Vega the following year, know how special their sound is. (pic-Mandolin Orange) Join me this Sunday to hear the variety of the modern-infused traditional music offered. Devil Makes Three is exactly that. The MerleFest guide describes them as “garage-y ragtime, punkified blues, old n’ new timey without setting upon a particular era, inspired as much by mountain music as by Preservation Hall jazz, blending several genres.” If that doesn’t grab you by your bootstraps and get you out to the Pinewood Bowl Sunday, you best hang up your saddle!
Banjo power couple Fleck and Washburn shared their music with the crowd as if we were all sitting on their front porch. Intimate, candid, relaxed conversation and stellar musicianship won over the audience. Their set pulled mostly from their most recent release Echo in the Valley, recorded with the specific parameters that they’d be able to reproduce each song live, on stage, with just the two and their respective banjos. Especially poignant was Washburn’s “Come All You Coal Miners”, inspired by Sarah Ogan Gunning, an outspoken advocate for depression-era coal miners’ rights.
One of our Honky Tonk Heroes is Rodney Crowell and his gift for songwriting has been spotlighted a’plenty on KZUM, so it was a tasty treat to see him perform live! His vocals shone through the dusk of Friday evening. The crowd enjoyed a solid set of his better-known songs: “Still Learning How To Fly”, “Fate’s Right Hand”, “Many A Long & Lonesome Highway” and “I Couldn’t Leave You If I Tried”. (Pic-Rodney)
Closing out Day two of Merlefest was another one of our Honky Tonk Heroes, Jamey Johnson. His powerful stage presence brought the crowd to their feet, stompin’ and clappin’ to the upbeat numbers like “Mowin’ Down the Roses” and the classic “The Door is Always Open” written by Dickey Lee and Bob McDill. Johnson slowed it down with tunes like “Mary Go Round” and “High Cost of Living”. Not to leave his fans on a slow note, Jamey brought the tempo back up to finish his set with a rockin’ medley of “You Are My Sunshine, “Up on Cripple Creek”, “ I Saw the Light” and a raucous “This Land is Your Land”.
Rodney Crowell performs at MerleFest 2018. Photo by Bob Alexander.
Kris Kristofferson performs at MerleFest 2018. Photo by Jim Gavenus.
Twyla Twang hosts “HonkyTonk Heroes” every Friday from 9 to 10 p.m. on KZUM.