Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Music. Moments. Memories. Funnel Cake.

Doc and Merle Watson
back in the day

This year marks the ... twelfth? Merlefest that Tom and I have attended together...? What’s Merlefest you say? It’s a four-day bluegrass/roots music festival that busts out every April in North Wilkesboro, NC. 

Doc, more recently
I love the music. We’ve seen so many fantastic acts... but I also appreciate having four days during which I don’t have to work, cook, pick up toys, nag about homework... I also get to be outdoors, spend time with my boys and eat funnel cakes. It’s also a great place to people-watch. It draws a broad array of festival goers: older, conservative country music fans, parents with kids, young Dead heads following the jam bands... You see, now that Jerry Garcia’s gone, they all follow bands like Donna the Buffalo and the Waybacks... both frequent guests at Merlefest.

Scythian with Scottish
legend Dougie MacLean
Some background: Doc Watson is an amazing flat-picking guitar player with deep, resonating voice. Long ago he used to play with his son Merle... until Merle was killed in a tragic tractor accident. Doc was devasted, but soldiered on, eventually founding Merlefest to honor the memory of his late son. The proceeds benefit North Wilkes Community College, where the shindig is held. Other local non-profits boost their treasuries by manning the food booths. 

Jim Lauderdale
With acts playing on more than ten stages at the same time, there’s so much music of all styles going on that it’ll make your head spin.  It’s really hard to choose what to listen to, frankly: traditional country, alt country, honky-tonk, “jam band” style, celtic, pure bluegrass, progressive bluegrass, folk, gospel, singer-songwriter... And it’s not just obscure stuff that only certain people know. Well, there’s a lot of that, but there’s famous stuff too. We’ve seen Dolly Parton, Loretta Lynn, Steve Martin, Elvis Costello, Robert Plant, Linda Ronstadt... And besides the music, there’s stuff for kids to do, a place to buy CDs of the stuff you hear, crafts vendors and lots of greasy good food. 

One of our new Amy
Campbell originals
So, the slogan the Merlefest folks have come up with is "Merlefest: Music. Moments. Memories." And over the years, I’ve amassed a nice little store of memories had at this, our favorite weekend of the year. Here are just a few, in no particular order:

1. Romance: The first year we attended, we were just dating. Tom was kissing me goodnight at the door of my hotel room and I literally fell asleep on my feet mid-kiss. It honestly had nothing to do with his kissing prowess... Merlefest is just that tiring.

Emmylou Harris
sings like an angel.
2. The kindness of strangers: Against my better judgment, I actually went to Merlefest pretty close to my due date when I was carrying Bill. My bag was checked by a local man who gave me his cell phone number so that he could call one of the town’s two OB-GYNs should something untoward happen. And day in and day out, women insisted that I move to the front of every bathroom line. If you’ve been pregnant, you’ll know what a huge blessing that was. Fortunately for all involved, Bill waited a good two days after Merlefest to break my water...! I’m reasonably sure all the walking and stair climbing I did helped speed his emergence.

One year I met
Jerry Douglas...
3. Being a hippie mama: Folks at the festival think nothing of a mom whipping her breast out to feed a fussy child. So when Bill was little, I wasn’t exactly popping them out, but I did enjoy a sense of freedom I’d not previously imagined.

4. Meeting musicians: One year I made a particular effort. If I saw one loose (ie. not on stage,) I would sidle up and ask them to take a photo with me. I met two of my perennial favorites - John Cowan and Jerry Douglas. They probably hate when people do that unless they’re hot chicks, but I didn’t let that stop me!

... and John Cowan!
5. Other brushes with fame: Tom and I were watching Guy Clark play when I heard a sweet little harmony in my left ear... you see, Emmylou Harris was standing right next to me on the grass in front of the Americana Stage. Oh heavenly day! And thumbing through CD’s that same year at the now-missing County Sales trailer, I realised that I was standing behind Doc Watson. Not sure how he could tell what was what, though, him being blind and all...

Bill's demeanor at
previous Merlefests.
6. Discovering new acts: New to me, anyway. Many of the musicians you see at Merlefest return again and again. I see Jim Lauderdale and John Cowan play at least once each year. I also read over the descriptions of less familiar acts and will take in a few new acts that sound interesting. The year we saw Daryl Scott perform a solo set, Tom and I were both surprised and impressed with his rich voice and well-written songs. Last year I plunked myself down in front of a group of fabulous young musicians called Scythian, a D.C. band that plays Celtic and Gypsy music. Rollicking good fun, I tell you... impossible not to dance to. And one year I found Great Big Sea... a group of Nova Scotia lads playing sea shanties and original tunes in that vein. I love those unexpected pleasures.

Elvis Costello
at Merlefest
7. Very good surprises: After years of hauling around a whiny, sometimes carsick kid, this year’s trip was completely different. First of all, we have mastered the art of administering Dramamine. And second... other than a couple of trips to the crafts tent, Bill sat and listened to the music with pleasure and without complaint. Even when it was really cold (Saturday) or really hot (Sunday.) Of course, letting him play Angry Birds on my iPhone didn’t hurt!

I don't have to tell you
what this is...!
8. New friends: This year we got to meet my brother and sister-in-law’s friend Amy, an artist who had a booth in the vendors area. We were also pleased to bring a couple of pieces of her funky folk art home with us. Now we just have to find a place to hang it...

9. Old friends: Sometimes I get to see people from far and wide... my high school chemistry teacher, my sister's best friend from home, people I met the previous year... It's like a family reunion, it is!

10. Album Hour: Every year a group called the Waybacks plays an entire rock album from start to finish... with both rock and bluegrass instruments. It's not always stellar, but sometimes... it just is... Like when they did the Beatles Abbey Road and Elvis Costello joined them for She Came in Through the Bathroom Window.

11. Funnel Cake.

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