07 May 2002
Merlefest, held on the grounds of a community college in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, began in 1987 as a tribute to bluegrass legend Doc Watson's son and performing partner Merle, who died in a farming accident two years earlier.
The first Merlefest saw a handful of artists playing on the decks of two flatbed trucks to a crowd of a couple of thousand people.
Merle Watson's memory remains the emotional core of the festival and the man responsible for keeping that spirit alive is his father. At the age of 79, Doc opens and closes the four-day festival, and performs enough in-between to keep everyone happy.
This year, close to 80,000 music fans passed through Merlefest's gates. For many, a highlight of the weekend was hearing Doc Watson team up with his late son's band "Frosty Morn" for a set full of bluegrass, folk and old-time country.
Each year, Frosty Morn member Bob Hill makes the more than 3,000 kilometer trip to the festival from his home in Arizona. He doesn't play music for a living anymore, and says it's something of a challenge to take to the stage only once a year. "I get a little nervous," he said. "I was pretty nervous yesterday. Doc really has a way of putting you at ease. So I usually find the slot and slip into it. It's a real challenge, but it's so much fun, and I just love to see him that I wouldn't want to miss this if at all possible."
Art Menius is the festival's sponsorship and marketing coordinator. He says Merlefest 2002 has been their biggest year yet.
Art Menius: "A guestimate for the total will be probably around 85,000. We had well more than 20,000 on site last night, so we're up more than a third from last year for Saturday, which is remarkable - as big as we were last year on Saturday."
Katherine Cole: "Why?"
Art Menius: "A lot of it is just the quality we put out at Merlefest for 15 years. Another component is the 'O' Brother' phenomenon. These are the great days for American acoustic music. We've never had the profile we have right now."
Katherine Cole: Do you have any idea how many attendees are first-timers?
Art Menius: I don't, but it is significant, with advance sales up seventeen per cent and so many walk-ins. You've got to figure the majority of those are first-timers."
The "O' Brother" phenomenon Art Menius refers to is the success of the soundtrack to the movie of the same name. That record has sold more than five million copies, won five Grammy Awards, and is the first-ever bluegrass album to hit Number One on the Billboard charts; an amazing feat, considering it was all but ignored by commercial radio in the United States.
Regardless of changes in size, Merlefest still upholds its reputation as a festival that both fans and performers come back to time-and-time again.
In keeping with the eclectic nature of Doc Watson's music, Merlefest isn't strictly a bluegrass festival, but more of a mix of several traditional acoustic styles. This year's lineup included Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Alison Krauss and Union Station. But each year also brings new acts to the festival, such as San Francisco's Waybacks. Their modern string band sound was a hit with the Merlefest crowd.
Katherine Cole: "Did you have any idea you'd be the 'buzz band?'"
James Nash: "No, we really didn't. Just about everybody in the acoustic music world is here this weekend, and it's easy to just get overwhelmed. You look at the schedule, and figure no one is going to show up for our shows. They're going to be seeing Earl, or Doc, or Sam or anybody - Alison Krauss. Everybody is here. It's thrilling! The fact that people actually came out to see us, and, that at every show, we had more people there, and people were talking and coming up to us. Yeah, it's been a real blast, and no, we didn't expect this at all."
In case you're interested in attending next year's event, the 16th Merlefest will be held April 24 through 27.
The Waybacks' new CD, Devolver, was released in time to coincide with Merlefest. It's a mix of vocals and instrumentals, including a new version of Charlie Parker's jazzy "Scrapple from the Apple."