Merlefest 2009

MRBA Member and photographer, John Jamieson is just back from Merlefest 2009 and has this review and pictures to share with us.  Thanks for all the great pictures John.  It sounds like a wonderful time.


MerleFest is known as the “opening act” for the Summer festival season in the United States.  Over a four day weekend in April, close to 75,000 people came to hear great music, learn traditional dances and jam into the wee hours.  The festival started 22 years ago as a celebration to remember Merle Watson, Doc Watson’s son, who was killed in a tractor accident.  The 1988 event was held on two stages over two days and featured Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs and fiddler Jim Shumate, Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, Grandpa Jones and daughter Alissa, Marty Stuart, Mike Cross, New Grass Revival, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, The Smith Sisters, John Hartford, Mark O’Conner, Jerry Douglas, George Hamilton IV, and a few others.  Today there are fifteen stages hosting nearly one hundred acts using professional lighting and sound from Nashville.  Over a thousand volunteers make this one of the best organized and run festivals in the United States.

The music is “Americana” or “traditional plus” as Doc Watson calls it.  Everyone is represented, from big acts like Emmy Lou Harris, Linda Ronstadt, Jack Lawrence and Del McCoury to small family acts from small towns playing very traditional music.  There’s three small tents for pickers: “Traditional Old Time Pickin’ Tent”, “Anything Goes Pickin’ Tent” and “Bluegrass Pickin’ Tent”.

Bluegrass was the most prominent music at this year’s festival, but good acoustic blues players, old-timey family bands, folk music and pure traditional music was everywhere.  One of the highlights was the large Traditional Tent that hosted the old-time musicians, dancers and callers with lots of fiddlers, clawhammer banjo players and guitarists in their seventies and eighties playing for the dancers.

In addition to the “traditional plus” music, the festival also hosted heritage crafts demonstrations, instrument picking contests and a song writing contest. 

There also were lots of “shoppes” selling the type of stuff these big festivals seem to attract, and a gigantic food tent that featured truly heart-stopping deep-fried southern specialties.

A nice touch were the local camping facilities in and around the town of Wilkesboro.  Jamming there went on until five or six in the morning and some people in the camping areas never get to the festival itself because the music is so good at the campgrounds.  One campground has been set up every year on the grounds of the local waste-water treatment plant.  The camp has acquired its own identity and even sold T-shirts that said “Sewerfest 2009”.  Unfortunately I didn’t move fast enough to buy one of those.

I stayed at the Addison Inn, a local motel in Wilkesboro.  Every room was booked, mostly by MerleFest for the musicians playing in the festival.  In the evening, after the last act had finished at the festival, some incredible jamming was happening back at the motel in the rooms, on the balconies outside the rooms, in rooms off the main lobby and out by the cars in the parking lot.  The weather reached ninety degrees during the day and the evening temperatures in the seventies were a welcome relief from the day’s heat and just right for making lots of music.

I have to say that fifteen stages can be a big problem when two of your favorite acts are playing at the same time.  The festival has dealt with this potential problem by having most of the acts do a second performance the next day at another stage.  It seems to work.

The very best thing about MerleFest is that its all about the music.

-John Jamieson

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