Apr 27, 2008

Merlefest '08...

Doc Watson

For the 19th time, I made the trek to Merlefest this weekend. Mary Ann drove from home and picked me up at the Asheville airport Thursday afternoon, from which we proceeded to North Wilkesboro, NC, the home of Wilkes Community College. This event is a great tribute to the victory of the human spirit over tragedy.

In 1985, Eddy Merle Watson, son of the legendary guitar player, Arthel "Doc" Watson, was killed in a tragic tractor accident. A couple years later, a member of the horticulture staff at Wilkes Community College, "B" Townes, came up with the idea of dedicating a garden to Merle's memory. To help raise money for the effort, the school asked Doc if he would perform in a fund-raising concert. In April, 1988, the first Eddy Merle Watson Memorial concert was held. A few of Doc and Merle's friends had joined in. A veritable Who's Who of Bluegrass and country music performed in what was to have been a one-time event -- Earl Scruggs and fiddler Jim Shumate, Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, Grandpa Jones and daughter Alisa, Marty Stuart, Mike Cross, New Grass Revival, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, the Smith Sisters, John Hartford, Mark O'Conner, Jerry Douglas, George Hamilton IV, and Sam Bush, among others!

The one-time event took on a life of its own and has grown into the world's premiere Americana Roots Music festival. The variety is astounding -- bluegrass, old time, country, gospel, Cajun and Zydeco, Western Swing, Celtic -- the list goes on.

I first heard of and attended the festival in 1990. Parking was still allowed on campus. There were only about four venues (now there are 14 specific venues and untold informal performance areas where pickers simply start playing).

Mary Ann and I enjoyed hearing some of our favorite groups from the past, and as usual, were introduced to some new favorites. We did attend the Midnight Jam on Saturday night, but left around 1:00 AM to get a little sleep before we had to head back to the Asheville Airport to get me on a plane. I've been working the last month in Amityville, New York.

One interesting thing happened as we were walking toward the festival entrance on Friday morning. We spotted Mary Beth and Keating Jones and their children, friends from church back in Huntsville! What are the odds among 80,000 attendees!?! I'm sure they were impressed at my festival finery...

Here's an example of the kind of impromptu "Merlefest Moment" that we come to expect. It's Riley Baugus and Laurie Lewis jammin' with some friends right at the entrance to the festival: