Apr 29, 2009

Merlefest Excels Again...

Travis Tritt & Jerry Douglas on Thursday Night

I never quite get used to the notion that Merlefest surprises me with its overall excellence. It's simply the biggest, most varied, best administered, Americana music festival anywhere. And this year was my 20th visit to North Wilkesboro, NC, for my annual "fix." Once more, I wasn't disappointed.

I went with Monty Love, a good friend from Huntsville, who coincidentally took me to the first Merlefest I attended, in 1990. Monty filled in this year when Mary Ann realized that she simply couldn't attend because of the demands of the Gift Shop. Monty and I left early Thursday and arrived at the motel by 4:00 PM. We got into our seats in time for the Thursday night performance of the Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band. As soon as I saw the band I said to Monty, "That mandolin player is Jody Stecher, who taught a harmony class I was in at Elkins (The Augusta Heritage Arts Workshops) several years ago!" It was just the first of this year's pleasant surprises.

The band that followed was Dailey & Vincent, the pairing of Jamie Dailey and Darrin Vincent, who took home an unprecedented 7 awards at the 19th Annual International Bluegrass Music Awards in 2008. They accomplished a feat no other artist has done, by winning Entertainer of the Year and Emerging Artist of the Year in the same year, a feat all the more impressive because they had released their debut album and begun touring only nine months before that. Their other awards were for Vocal Group of the Year, Album of the Year (Dailey & Vincent), Gospel Recorded Performance of the Year (“By the Mark”), Male Vocalist of the Year (Jamie), and Recorded Event of the Year, for Darrin’s participation in the Everett Lilly & Everybody and Their Brother project.

Dailey & Vincent

Dailey & Vincent received six SPBGMA Bluegrass Music Awards at the awards show held on February 15, 2009, at the Music City Sheraton in Nashville: Vocal Group of the Year, Bluegrass Band of the Year, Song of the Year (“By the Mark”), Gospel Group of the Year/Contemporary, Bass Fiddle Performer of the Year (Darrin Vincent) and Male Vocalist of the Year/Contemporary (Jamie Dailey).

And then we got to the featured act for Thursday, Travis Tritt performing with Jerry Douglas. They were spectacular! As you can tell, the standard is set high at Merlefest. And the presentation -- venues, sound systems, etc. -- is up to that same level. It's all quite remarkable, and all to honor and remember Merle Watson, the late son of the legendary guitarist and singer, Doc Watson. The history of the festival is described very well on the Swampland.com website.

Friday morning, we got on campus early and noticed on one of the many publicly-posted schedule boards that there had been a change in the schedule and that Doc Watson and David Holt would be performing at the traditional tent in about fifteen minutes. We were there in a heartbeat and sat in about the fifth row. What a treat. Doc was at his most relaxed working with his close friend and travelling companion. At 86, he can still inspire. We soaked it all up for the next hour. We then proceeded to the main stage to hear the last half of a "Welcome Home Superjam" with The Duhks, Jim Lauderdale, and Peter Rowan. A short hike brought us to the Creekside Stage for the "Blues Showcase" hosted by Roy Book Binder, an artist I had heard in Huntsville in the early 1980's. He was joined by three other great blues musicians, Doug MacLeod, Jimmy "Duck" Holmes, and Patrick Sweany.

It was hot! In a very rare spring heat wave, temperatures reached 90 degrees. Monty and I decided to take refuge in a closed venue. We proceeded to the Walker Center, a very fine auditorium that seats around 1,000 people. We got there in time to see a young and very good bluegrass band called The Circuit Riders. We weren't disappointed. And they were followed by one of my favorite groups, The Kruger Brothers. The Krugers migrated from Switzerland, where they had learned to play bluegrass music from their father's vinyl records. They moved to North Carolina in 2003. If you are ever near a Kruger Brothers venue, by all means go to their performance. Their music doesn't fit any genre that I know of. They are genuinely unique and very special.

Friday night it was the Del McCoury Band followed by the Waybacks, a young and very energetic group with a huge following.

Emmylou Harris & Friends on Saturday Night

I won't bother you with the gory details of the rest of the weekend, but believe me, it just kept getting better. We finished up on Sunday morning with a spiritually uplifting session with Doc Watson and The Nashville Bluegrass Band performing an all-gospel program. At one point, Doc paused to testify about his personal salvation and the reason for our being there. It was very moving.

On our way home, as we meandered through the mountains of western North Carolina, we managed to find "The Chestnut Man," but that's a story for another time.

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