First of all, I suppose I should say, “If you don’t know what MerleFest is, then find out right away”. Your life will be richer for the knowing. It will be enriched even further by the going, and it’s not that far – just up in Wilkesboro, an hour and a half from where I live near Charlotte, and probably only slightly more or less than that from where you live. In any case, I went up for the festival with my nephew and best pal, Jason, just as I’ve done for the past six years, and I knew within the first few hours of the festival that I would write about it this year, as I’ve not done in the past, except for perhaps an occasional reference while writing about something else. So I knew I would write something; didn’t know what exactly (still don’t – exactly); but I’m not bothered by that. On the other hand, I don’t know and can’t quite figure out where to start, and that is bothersome.
I suppose I could start as the festival started – with the rain, but if I started with the rain, I’d really have to go back to fall of 2010 when I bought a tent at a yard sale for three dollars. Now I have tents, of course – two good tents, but they’re both small. This one was considerably larger, and I thought the extra center height and room to move around would make it perfect for a multi-day event like MerleFest, and for only three bucks! I couldn’t believe what a good deal it was, and it came in a very good, military green, canvas duffle. To top it off, I found a hatchet in the bottom of the duffle, and as you may know, I’m nuts about edged tools and weapons of which hatchets are both, a fact that makes them twice as interesting to me.
Now there are two rules for new tents: 1) Be sure that you know how to set them up before you actually have to. And 2) Try them out in the backyard before taking them on a trip. Fortunately, I followed Rule number 1, and after struggling for hours to figure out how the poles went together, I finally discovered that I had a set of pole for a second tent that had not been mentioned – no second tent, just a bunch of poles that I didn’t need. After this ground-breaking (and heart-breaking) discovery, it became a simple, although very laborious and time-consuming, process of trial and error to figure out which poles were actually needed and which were just Democrats. However, once that sorting out was accomplished, I was able to set up the tent in minutes, by myself, and my good humor returned almost immediately. In fact, the tent looked great! It was even bigger than I had estimated, with nice bright colors; and as it turned out, I also had an extra set of tent stakes, which actually is a good thing. Heck, once the tent was set up, it looked so good that I decided that Rule number 2 would not be necessary. I was as happy as a pig in mud, which bring me back to MerleFest.
As many of you know, a major storm system blew across the southeast on April 27th and continued on into the morning of the 28th. The death toll from this storm and the dozens of tornadoes associated with it topped 325 (most of them in Alabama) and property damage was brutal and extensive. When this storm rolled into the Carolina foothills at about 3:00 AM, I was camped in a field behind the Masonic Lodge in Wilkesboro, NC, in a three dollar tent. At approximately 4:00 AM, a restaurant owner from down the street came through the campground yelling that a tornado was coming, and I rolled off of my airbed to the rather rude surprise of my bare feet splashing in a pool of water that should have been the floor of my tent. I slipped on my flip-flops and (literally) waded outside to join the handful of other campers who had just received the same tornado warning. We stood around together for several minutes until one moderately annoyed individual remarked to no one in particular, “OK; a tornado is coming. Now what the hell are we supposed to do?” After half an hour and no tornado, the campers began to return to their travel trailers and tents, and I spent the remainder of the night in a lawn chair under our picnic table canopy. After the arrival of daylight and another couple of hours of strong thunderstorms, the rain finally stopped, and I stuck my head into the tent to survey the damage. It was worse than I had feared. Now my little problem was nothing in comparison to what the folks down south were waking up to, but every piece of clothing I had brought for a four day trip (including what I had on) was soaked, along with two books, my sleeping bag, my pillow, towels, and shoes.
I spent the next two hours bailing water out of my three dollar tent using a large borrowed sponge and a #1 tin can. As you may know, a #1 tin can holds a gallon, and I filled it to the brim six times and over half of a seventh time. This is in an environment where spilling a cup of water is a major problem. Once I had reclaimed the floor of my tent, we loaded up all of our wet clothes and gear, and spent the next two hours in a laundramat in downtown Wilkesboro trying to get them dry. However, after that adventure, it was finally time for breakfast. We drove across town to Hadley’s Restaurant and ate well; it’s hard not to eat well at that place. We finished our breakfast about noon – about the same time that the sun arrived, and for the balance of the week, we had nothing but great weather. By the end of the day Thursday, most of the puddles had dried up, and as the mud gradually began to stop sucking the flip-flops off my feet as I walked, my spirits rebounded and then soared when the music finally started.
But the rain was only one way I could have started my little story. I could just as well have begun at the end of the festival (or what was the end for me) and worked backwards. I saw my last group, the Kruger Brothers, on the Hillside stage [there are 13 real stages where performances are scheduled at MerleFest and countless other places where folks just get together and play] at 1:30 Sunday afternoon from the second row. The set ran for a little over an hour and included several of my favorites like “Carolina in the Fall” and “Appalachian Mist”, and I thought of the first time I had heard those songs – almost exactly a year ago – and of how it had sent me scrambling for the CD’s they were from. In playing through those discs, I discovered several other wonderful gems, the overall effect of which was to solidify my determination to learn to play the banjo. [I now own a banjo and am a happy, though struggling, student.] Seeing these master musicians again and hearing them play those songs that are so special to me, provided a very satisfying and uplifting theoretical ending for my MerleFest experience this year. The group concluded their set by playing the final movement from their newly released “Appalachian Concerto”, Jens Kruger’s amazing and amazingly beautiful tribute to the land and people of Appalachia, and I thought, “Yes. That’s what I came for.” After a lengthy standing ovation, I walked by the front of the stage and headed back down the hill. As I passed, I waved to Uwe and called out, “Good to see you again.” He nodded and smiled, and I suppose it’s possible that he actually remembered me, as I’d sat on the front row back in January to see the group in concert at the Hayes Performing Arts Center in Blowing Rock. In any case, it was good southern manners from the gentleman from Switzerland, and there are times when being treated courteously is just as important as being remembered, if not more so. I suppose I could’ve said, “See you next year”, but I hoped it wouldn’t be that long.
Yes, it might have worked to begin with the end, but somehow it just didn’t feel right. Later, it occurred to me that perhaps I should not try to have any special beginning at all – that it might be better just to discuss some special MerleFest moments in no particular order and then end with the single moment that most accurately represented my MerleFest experience this year. The more I thought about that, the more sense it made, so I set my mind in that direction and finally began to write. I returned to opening night and thought of Randy Travis – when he told a charming little story about his granddad and then sang “He Walked on Water”. Yes, of course it’s a good song, but that moment was a lot more than just the singing of a good song. It was full of themes that run through MerleFest, like the importance of family and the impact of multi-generational influences, but it was more than that also. Through the song and the story, Randy managed to tap into reality in such a way that individuals in the audience were able to reconnect with it and spend a few moments in that other world where the truth is known and understood. We all need that; in fact, it’s one of the main reasons that people come to MerleFest, although few might describe it that way. As Lyle Lovett put it so well a bit later in the week, “We all need a little bluegrass church now and then.” If there is a greater function of MerleFest than to provide entertainment (and there is), it is to provide the opportunity for reconnection on a multitude of levels. This reconnection is somewhat similar to that of modern day church revivals, but has much more in common with old-time camp meetings. Like those get-togethers of long ago, MerleFest has elements of a family reunion, a spiritual retreat, an all-night sing, and a revival meeting all rolled into one – a celebration of life, a particular type and way of life that many of us believe to be endangered and under attack.
Having had that quote from Lyle Lovett pop into my head, I focused my attention on his performance and thought again about MerleFest moments. The first thing that struck me was how intelligent his performance had been. He was a star with a huge following, but like Travis before him, the MerleFest audience was not really his audience. It could easily have been a disaster, but Lyle handled it perfectly. First, he brought Sam Bush (the one person on earth who exemplifies the spirit of MerleFest even better than Doc Watson) out on stage with him and kept him there, as if to say, “See, it really is OK, so open up and give it a try.” Then he carefully paid tribute to Doc and Merle, explaining that years ago, as Doc and Merle would pass through Houston, he and his buddies would sometimes get to open for them and how grateful he was for those opportunities and for the opportunity to be playing at MerleFest. Having covered those bases, he probably could’ve gotten away with anything on stage, but he didn’t try to. Instead, he played a very “conservative” and thoughtful set, which went over extremely well. He was perhaps most effective when, after telling a charming story about his family and their week-end car trips (too busy with making a living to take full week vacations), he sang “South Texas Girl”, a jewel of a song about his family and early childhood from the “It’s Not Big It’s Large” album of 2007. In reference to those early excursions with young Lyle seated between Mom and Dad, he sang:
Three in the front seat they sat on each side
That green and white ’58 Fairlane would fly
Down farm roads past open fields seeming like no big deal
As it was happening I never felt a thing
But now looking back it seems like it was everything
Singing with mom just so we could hear ourselves sing
Stealing a drink from the cold can in daddy's lap
Protected by only a small thin brown paper sack,
And it occurred to me that he had the whole childhood thing for us Baby boomers right there in a nutshell, much the same way that Don Henley did with “The End of the Innocence”.
Remember when the days were long
And rolled beneath a deep, blue sky
Never had a care in the world
With Mommy and Daddy standing by
And as I sat there in my $225 seat, in that audience having an average age of around 50, with night settling on the hills, I thought, “Yeah, here we are. We’re the pride and joy of the Greatest Generation, the most affluent (and spoiled) population in the history of the world. We’re not just self-centered; we’re self-obsessed. We’re the generation that murdered fully one-third of it’s children before they were born, and we now have the nerve to wonder why we find happiness so elusive. Many of us have been asleep for a generation, but some of us are finally beginning to awaken, now that it’s too late. How embarrassing it is to see what we’ve done! What an unholy mess we’ve made of things during our thirty year drunk! Just look at what we’ve elected for leaders and what we’ve allowed this once-great country to be turned into. I was actually starting to laugh to myself when I heard the greatest Texas line of all time – “Home is where my horse is.” Leave it to Lyle to pull me back from the edge and back into the music. If I’d ever heard “Natural Forces” before, I had no memory of it, but I began to listen just in time to hear
Now as I sit here safe at home
With a cold Coors Lite and the TV on
With all the sacrifice and death and war
Lord, I pray I’m worth fighting for
“Yes Lord,” I thought, “and so do I.” It was indeed a powerful moment, but then again, there were other powerful moments.
I thought again about the Kruger Brothers’ performance – about a song they sang called “Choices”, an achingly beautiful song about the crazy collections of events that we call our lives and about the one who continues to love us while we waste our years making our own special mistakes.
When you find yourself alone
In a world as cold as stone
In the darkness there’s a light
That will guide you through the night
When the time has come to see
That the future’s meant to be
And the choices you recall
Were not choices after all
There’s no reason to despair
For there’s always someone there
Who loves you more than you’ll ever know
Doesn’t matter where you go
It may be that you need to have been in a battle with depression for some years, as I have, to really appreciate the profound eloquence of the truth expressed here, but perhaps not. In any case, I knew immediately that this was a song I’d be humming and singing for weeks, and hearing it was a festival-defining moment for me.
Then I thought about Doc. He’s eighty-eight now, and every performance he gives is historic. And while it’s true for all of them, it seems even more true for him, that every song I hear him pick and sing, could be the last one. I’m so glad to have been there Saturday evening to hear him sing along with Bill Mathis and the others on the “Tribute to Merle”. That song brought the festival back into focus for me, just before Sam Bush and his band came out for their turn on the Watson stage. If anything, Sam gets better every year, and he’s always white hot. Somehow hearing him do “Circles Around Me” that evening just felt perfect – totally real and honest, with a touch of sadness for friends he’d lost along the way, but absolutely amazed and delighted to find that he and the rest of us are still alive and kicking.
We were riding down through the grapevines
When I heard someone say your name
Hand on my shoulder, just a little bit older now
And I remember everything
High in Telluride, up on Bridal Veil
Ten thousand feet above the sound
The news came around and sent me to count all my blessings
And to thank you for the good friends that I’ve found
Hey, hey, hey
How in the world did we get this far
Hey, hey, hey
Holding tight to the tail of a shooting star
Hey, hey, hey
You’re running circles around me
Circles around me now
It was a moment of reunion for the MerleFest family as only Sam, who’s been there for every MerleFest since it began in 1988, could have arranged. Was it the highlight of the week that I’d been looking for? Well, it certainly was a highlight, but then so was seeing Red Molly for the first time and seeing the Del McCoury Band do “52 Black Lightening” once again.
Sitting in the sun on Saturday afternoon to see Tony Rice was a treat. He may well be the greatest flat picker alive. And seeing the Doobie Brothers again was a trip. I hadn’t seen them since 1972 when they played the Spartanburg Memorial Auditorium. They were the second of a three act show. The Marshall Tucker Band, a strong local favorite at the time, opened the show with a major bang, then the Doobies came on and brought the house down. Then, when the featured act finally appeared, the crowd was spent – tired, sleepy, and ready to head back to the dorms. So they played for a while, and we clapped courteously, and then it was over, and I doubt that Fleetwood Mac ever cared to visit South Carolina again. This time, the Doobies were the featured act, but once again I was tired and sleepy, and I listened to the end of their show from my campsite across the creek. And just in case you missed it, “Listen to the Music” never sounded better than it did that night by the creek.
You know, out of over 250 scheduled performances over four days, I only really saw about 30 of them and heard a few more from my campsite – not even 20% of the total. So from a statistical perspective, it is likely that I actually missed the greatest MerleFest moment of 2011, but that’s OK. I had some very special moments and brought some great music and memories home with me. In fact, while leafing through my festival program later, I found a note that I’d written while watching a band called Balsam Range, another group that I’d seen for the first time. The note simply said, “Here’s to the trains I missed”, and I recognized it as a line from a song they’d sung that I wanted to remember, because it sounded like it would be a good one. Days later, I found the song on Youtube entitled simply, “The Trains I Missed”, and after listening to it again, I realized that it was even better than I had thought it might be.
Here’s to the trains I missed
The loves I lost
The bridges I burned
The rivers I never crossed
Here’s to the call I didn’t hear
The signs I didn’t heed
The roads I didn’t take
The maps that I just couldn’t read
It’s a big old world, but I’ve found my way
And the hell and the hurt have lead me straight
Here’s to the trains I missed
It was a wonderful song from a group that was brand new for me – another great MerleFest moment, and it didn’t even happen at the festival. It was two weeks after the festival, and I was still having MerleFest moments. And it occurred to me that perhaps I should just say, “Here’s to the MerleFest that I missed,” and be thankful for the one I happened to see. It’s largely a matter of chance after all, and it brought to mind my favorite poem, “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost.
Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,
And sorry I could not travel both
And be one traveler, long I stood
And looked down one as far as I could
To where it bent in the undergrowth;
Then took the other, as just as fair,
And having perhaps the better claim,
Because it was grassy and wanted wear;
Though as for that the passing there
Had worn them really about the same,
And both that morning equally lay
In leaves no step had trodden back.
MerleFest is all about taking chances and making choices. There will always be a road not taken, but whatever road you choose, I hope it brings you through Wilkesboro in the spring. MerleFest 2012 will be held April 26th – 29th of next year, and that’s only 342 days away. It will be the 25th anniversary of MerleFest, and I can’t wait to see who makes it in for the celebration.
May 20, 2011