Merlefest 2023: Doc Watson’s 100th

a soggy mountain breakdown

Soggy mountain breakdown: 35th Merlefest honors Doc Watson’s 100th birthday

“What’s a little rain between 100,000 of your closest friends?” 

A stalwart attendee cracks the joke. It’s the spirit of resilience and determination to enjoy the music festival’s immersive experience, in a double-umbrella-heavy-duty-garbage-bag kind of way. 

On the bumpy ride over to the festival campus in a school bus that was probably in service during the Reagan administration, one thick-skinned camper greeted others with an enthusiastic, “Welcome to Mudfest!” But if the grounds, chairs, and every article of clothing worn were dampened, spirits weren’t, in a year marked by celebrating what would have been Merlefest founder Doc Watson’s 100th birthday.

The festival has become an annual pilgrimage to Wilkesboro, NC, like a homecoming, for musicians and fans alike during the last weekend of April. With twelve stages and four days of scheduling, covering every performance would be impossible. As would picking out a single favorite act. One festival goer likened it to being asked which one of their grandchildren is their favorite. 

Tanya Tucker, who performed on Sunday evening, admitted she initially thought the festival was named after Merle Haggard. It’s a common misconception. But those who are faithful followers do everything in their power to keep Doc and Merle’s memories alive.

From the Traditional Stage, Josh Goforth remembered playing with Doc as a child: “This was the very stage where I picked with Doc Watson for the first time. I wanted to play like him for so long. And then I got to hear the words ‘Pick it, son.’ Now I can die a happy man.”

The song he played with Doc was “I don’t love nobody and nobody loves me.”  “But it’s a happy sounding tune,” Goforth explained. “Doc retitled it ‘Nothing to it.’”

During a special 100th birthday jam hosted by the Kruger Brothers, Mitch Greenhill, producer of a Grammy winning album for Watson, led “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All rRght.” He described it as a song Doc Watson recorded written by a Nobel Peace prize winner. That writer was Bob Dylan and it was on the B side of his 1963 single “Blowing in the Wind”

“Doc told us one of his favorite tunes was ‘Shady Grove,’” Uwe Kruger shared with the audience. “He sometimes would have a tear running down his cheek when we’d play it. I asked him why. He said, ‘When Merle was young and crawling around my feet, Rosa Lee would be in the kitchen cooking–when I hear that song, I’m there, the happiest time of my life.”

“We are immigrants,” Uwe Kruger said, reminding the audience that he and his brother were in Europe when they first heard Watson’s music. “Doc Watson was the one of the finest ambassadors America ever had.”

When 80-year-old Peter Rowan took the stage, he sang, “It’s a Doc Watson morning, guitar picking kind of day.” In spite of the weather, that could have been the theme song for all four days of the festival.

Marketing for the festival describes the music genres represented as “traditional plus,” and under that wide umbrella, a concerted effort is clearly made to appeal to young and old. A tent is devoted to “Little Pickers,” and youthful talent is brought on stage to perform with seasoned veterans. Wyatt Ellis, a 14-year-old mandolinist, who has already played on the Grand Ole Opry, was invited on stage so often to play with bands, he kept the artist transportation golf cart  in action.

Veteran musician and local favorite Lightnin’ Wells played early Friday afternoon on the Cabin Stage during a rare window of time when planets aligned enough to block the rain. Even though his bumbled introduction labeled him “Lightnin’ Hopkins” (the blues singer), Wells deftly joked, “I’m glad I’m not him. He’s been dead a lot of years.” 

Collin Cutler photo by Donna Davis.

Collin Cutler, who recently played for the BoCo festival in Washington, put forth a strong performance with his full band during the Merlefest band competition on the Plaza Stage. His grandparents owned a farm in Vanceboro so he remembers spending a lot of time in eastern North Carolina.

Joe Newberry performed more than once over the weekend with bandmate Mike Compton. “I’m breaking out the banjo,” Newberry said, introducing a fast song. “I know that sounds like a threat. If you see something fly out in the crowd, it’s my thumb. Please bring it back.”

Chris Jones and the Night Drivers, known for their train-song hit “Riding the Chief,” took the indoor stage at the Walker Center. Introducing his band members, Jones said, “They are wonderful people to play music with, travel with, share poverty with.”

Nearing the end of their set,  the sound system had to be shut down due to lightning. Unruffled, the band shifted to the edge of the stage and sang without benefit of amplification. 

The master of ceremonies explained that all other programming on outdoor stages had been paused due to weather, and as festival-goers sought shelter, every seat in the house was filled.  Peter Rowan’s band was welcomed to the stage. 

“In the spirit of Doc Watson, we’re taking it back to how it all began,” Rowan said.

Rowan, the Grammy award-winning bluegrass musician who has played with Bill Monroe, Jerry Garcia, and a host of others, stood surrounded by youthful band members, suited like authentic Bluegrass Boys. The audience leaned in, coming to an unspoken agreement to hold their collective breath. The absence of technology seemed to remove a barrier, allowing for an uncharacteristic connection. When the set was finished, the audience was on their feet.

Programming resumed as the sky cleared and John Paul White began his set on the Americana Stage outdoors, while the audience sat on trash bags or folding chairs. He began with “I Wish I Could Write You a Song” and gave off a Johnny Depp-meets-Roy Orbison sort of vibe. His vocals were powerful enough to transfix listeners even as the rain began again, gently at first, and then in sheets. As listeners peered through umbrellas, tarps, and ponchos, White (on stage under a shelter) said in his Alabama accent, “To see you out there, staying through all this–it just does something to me. You’re the best audience ever.”

As if to reward Merlefestivarians for their faithfulness through the involuntary baptism (and not the sprinkle kind), the sky unfolded in a panoramic double rainbow stretching from one side of the Wilkes Community College Campus to the other. People stopped in their muddied tracks, gawking with mouths gaping at the spectacle.

The Merlefest slogan is “Music, Moments,  Memories”  And all three swirl in a kaleidoscope of color like a tie-dye shirt. From the Avett Brothers’ energy, Tommy Emmanuel’s passionate virtuosity, Del McCoury’s perfect hair, smile, and voice (even at age 84), and Tanya Tucker’s closing “Amazing Grace” transitioning seamlessly into “Delta Dawn.”

Graffiti on the Sewerfest campground bus attempts to capture the spirit of Merlefest. One inscription offered: “Cool thing about Merlefest is you can’t swing a cat without hitting a beautiful woman. That’s one thing. The music is good also.”

Another scrawled petition may do the best job explaining the motivation to be there, rain or shine: “Play something that makes me feel alive.”

Doc Watson at 100: I am a Pilgrim tribute CD was released April 28, featuring Dolly Parton, Roseanne Cash, Steve Earle and others. Watson, who was born in 1923 in Deep Gap, NC and passed in 2012, left an indelible mark on music. This compilation of songs that were important to him are lovingly rendered, like a gathering of close friends singing and picking on the front porch, reflecting on a beautiful day–and life.

The documentary “My Name is Merle” debuted at Merlefest 35.  Watch it. 

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All photos by Donna Davis.
Originally published May 13, 2023 in the Daily Reflector.

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Chris Jones & the Night Drivers

Henhouse Prowlers