FEATURE ‌ I Pick, Therefore I Grin 

Shaking the sunny day blues at Merlefest

click to enlarge Doc Watson at Merlefest 2007
  • Doc Watson at Merlefest 2007

Something gets in my blood when I’m in the Carolinas around the 20s of April. In college it was either our campus-wide “spring frolics” weekend or Widespread Panic in Raleigh, both bourbon-drenched affairs. Wilkesboro, N.C.’s MerleFest was always on my radar, but a dry festival when I’m in party mode? “Maybe next year,” year after year.

Thank goodness that year finally came. I arrived at the campus of Wilkes Community College on Friday night just in time to see Elvis Costello play “Alison,” then bring out Sam Bush and Jerry Douglas for “Friend of the Devil.” My comprehension of “Americana” music was already being pushed.

Next to the main Watson stage, where the largest acts perform, is a log cabin with a porch, aptly titled the Cabin Stage. Up-and-coming bands are given short slots there in between shows on the Watson, giving groups the opportunity to play to a much larger audience than they would on the smaller Austin or Creekside stages.

N.C.’s own Carolina Chocolate Drops seized that opportunity inbetween Costello and the Nitty Gritty Dirty Band, turning their 20 minutes into the breakthrough performance of the weekend. Their high-energy revival of African-American rootsy Piedmont bluegrass, complete with snare drum, spoons, and raucous dancing, earned them a line of a few hundred fans seeking autographs for their newly purchased CDs and posters. By their Sunday afternoon show at the hillside Austin stage, they attracted a capacity crowd of nearly 1,000 squeezing close to get a listen.

Other standouts included Darrell Scott, Ruthie Foster, and Roy Book Binder. Scott played a solo midnight show to a captivated audience at the indoor Lounge Stage, weaving his well thought-out lyrics and percussive guitar into spellbinding stories like his statement on his place in the world, “Sticking My Red Neck Out.” Foster performed twice, wowing the crowd with her powerful gospel vocals and her commanding stage presence — not unlike an Etta James or Aretha Franklin with an acoustic guitar. On Saturday afternoon, Book Binder played a set of old-timey blues and stories. “I’ve moved to St. Petersburg with my third wife,” he said. “She’s got a job and a house. It’s a folksinger’s dream.”

On Saturday night, Alison Krauss & Union Station, Tony Rice, and Jerry Douglas played a truly remarkable set, leaving me very excited for their upcoming Charleston performance. Asheville band Toubab Krewe worked the crowd into a drumming frenzy at the Dance tent that evening before putting on an equally respectable show on Sunday morning.

Peter Rowan, Pat Flynn, Earl Scruggs, even a few guest appearances on mandolin from former Led Zeppelin bassist John Paul Jones — the list of incredible performances goes on and on. Forced to pick a highlight, I’d have to say it’s any time Doc Watson took the stage. From his “Doc Sings the Blues” show on Saturday to a Sunday morning gospel performance, the 84-year-old flatpicker who invented the concept of acoustic lead guitar is still the world’s smoothest soloist on a Martin. At Sunday afternoon’s “Tribute to Merle,” he played Townes Van Zandt’s “If I Needed You,” bringing me to my emotionally awestruck peak of the weekend. I hear you, Doc.

For more information on the annual MerleFest, call 336-838-6100 or check www.merlefest.org.


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