WILKESBORO, N.C.— Observations from this past weekend’s MerleFest, an annual music festival that draws close to 80,000 people to the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains of North Carolina to hear the best in folk and bluegrass.
Scythian rocks. One of the surprises of MerleFest this year was Scythian, a Washington, D.C.-area band made up of two brothers—Alexander and Danylo Fedoryka—and three bandmates who combine bluegrass, Celtic, klezmer, and massive doses of audience participation. They had a crowd of at least 5,000 clapping, squatting, jumping, and spinning on Saturday afternoon. Then the band went to the “Little Pickers” tent and entertained about 500 kids and their parents with lively sing-alongs. After their “Kids Set,” they signed autographs and posed for photos with the children (and more than a few star-struck mothers) until the last one left.
Murphey’s first. It was a surprise to me that Michael Martin Murphey had never played MerleFest before this year. After all, he first met Doc Watson decades ago, and he and Watson were both featured on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken, Vol. II album. The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, MerleFest regulars, often played on Murphey’s early albums. And current and past MerleFest performers count Murphey as an influence. In fact, when Murphey was signing autographs on Sunday afternoon, a band from France showed him a copy of their CD with a cover of the Murphey-penned Urban Cowboy hit “Cherokee Fiddle.” But his two remarkable sets of music, his willingness to sign autographs in the pouring rain, and what one MerleFest videographer called the “best interview of the festival” at the media tent (featuring a cappella duets with his son/producer/guitar player Ryan) endeared him to both audience and staff. Festival organizers have already invited him back, so the good news is that his first MerleFest won’t be his last.
Album hour. One of the traditions of MerleFest is the Hillside Album Hour hosted by the San Francisco-based progressive bluegrass/“acoustic mayhem” band The Waybacks. The band picks a classic rock album and plays it in its entirety with help from other MerleFest artists. The identity of the album is a closely guarded secret. Only the artists who have to prepare for their parts know what it will be, though the band places clues (some of them intended to deceive) on Facebook and Twitter in the weeks leading up to the festival. Past albums have included The Beatles’ Abbey Road and The Allman Brothers Band’s Eat a Peach. This year it was Bob Dylan and The Band’s double-live Before the Flood. It was raining steadily by the end of the set, but a crowd of nearly 10,000 gathered for the performance didn’t seem to mind.
Paying it forward. According to festival director Ted Hagaman, a significant part of MerleFest’s mission is to “give back to the community.” In addition to the more than $9 million MerleFest has raised for Wilkes Community College, local civic groups raise a combined total of nearly $500,000 by selling food and providing transportation and other services to the festival. On Thursday, more than 20 MerleFest artists gave performances for nearly 10,000 children at local schools. On Friday morning, the first full day of the festival, more than 3,500 school children from Wilkes and surrounding counties attended the festival for free.
Contest winners. Another interesting aspect of MerleFest is the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, named for a member of Reba McEntire’s band who died in a plane crash in 1991. The contest helped launch the careers of Gillian Welch and Tift Merritt, who won in 2000 and has been a MerleFest regular since. The contest had more than 700 entries this year, and 12 received awards, including three in the gospel/inspirational category: Melody Walker (San Francisco, Calif.), Lorraine Jordan (Garner, N.C.), and Kelsi Robertson Harrigill (Murfreesboro, Tenn.). Net proceeds from the contest help support the Wilkes Community College Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship. Since its inception the scholarship has awarded more than $36,000 to 75 students.