31 Years of MerleFest
A Brief History
Happening on 13 stages over four days from April 26-29, this acclaimed roots music get-together will host more than 100 acts on the grounds of Wilkes Community College.
GraciousRoots sat down with the very busy Ted Hagaman, Festival Director to learn the definitive story of MerleFest's creation. "MerleFest was founded in 1988. It was not someone's vision or idea, we backed into it. We had a horticulture instructor who wanted to start a garden for the senses. The garden is on campus, but that was what started the idea. The instructor knew someone on the board who was a musician that knew Doc Watson (who lived 30 minutes up the road). The instructor surmised, given that Doc was blind, he would be supportive of the proposal to create a garden of the senses. Why don't I call Doc and see if he would consider playing a benefit concert to raise some money to build the garden? So the two men went up to see Doc. Doc said "Yeah, I'll do it with two conditions. First, I'd like to name the benefit concert after my son Merle. (who had been tragically killed in a tractor accident three years prior. Not only was he Doc's Son, but he also traveled extensively and played as a musician with Doc.) Secondly, I would like to bring some of my friends since it's going to be memorializing Merle."
"Pretty soon, Doc had so many friends lined up who had accepted to play for free, they realized they couldn't fit them all into Walker Center in a two hour time period. In response, Rosalee, (Doc's wife) purposed they put a mini-festival together. With the plan secured, the decision was made to wait until April to hold the festival to properly plan it out.
In April, all performers showed up on campus, most of them having ties to The Grand Ol'Oprey.
Plus: New Grass Revival
Approximately two thousand five hundred people attended the festival. Two stages were set up, one at the Walker Center and the other in a field down where the famed Watson Stage is now. At the time, the only thing down there was a cabin that someone had donated as a historical marker - now the Cabin Stage. So, where to place the bands so they can be seen? Pull two flatbed trailers side by side to create a stage. That was the first Watson Stage. Final analysis: 2,500 paying attendees, with free talent, which became something that did raise funds. The college went back to Doc to ask if he could do it again. Fortunately for all of us, he said yes. At the time, the festival was titled The Eddie Merle Watson Memorial Festival."
The story of the current name for the event goes somewhat like this. About two or three years later a lady called the college with a question, saying "By the way, when is the next MerleFest?" The question turned on a light bulb. Representatives approached Doc Watson to shorten the name down to MerleFest. Doc thought it a good idea.
MerleFest is a celebration of "traditional plus" music, a unique mix of traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk and gospel and blues, and expanded to include Americana, classic rock, and many other styles. The festival hosts a diverse mix of artists on its 13 stages during the course of the four-day event. MerleFest has become the primary fundraiser for the Wilkes Community College (WCC) Foundation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
Repping the Southern Highlands
With unparalleled quality and diversity of music, bands hailing from the Southern Highlands acquitted themselves marvelously, often as the highlight performances on each of the four days of the nationally acclaimed music festival. We highlight five well-known bands while bringing you up to speed on a new group, The Note Ropers, even though they were on their first cruise at MerleFest they electrified the stage and roped in the audience during their Saturday night performance.
We sat down with Steve Dilling (from the Raleigh, NC area), who is known to "...play like he was born and raised in a crib where only Earl Scruggs and Tony Rice played on the twirling mobile above him." And Jason Moore who started the band Sideline (from Rockingham County, NC - Reidesville) boasts numerous nominations and accolades for his session work, and extraordinary abilities on the double bass. Interesting fact, Jason plays the double bass that belonged to his Dad "It's the only one I've ever had."
Sideline played the Walker Center Stage (one of the two original stages) on Friday. By the time the forty-five-minute show was complete, attendees were both exhilarated and somewhat tired from exuberance as Sideline immediately put their foot on the accelerator, gradually engaging the audience with masterfully played tunes. Increasing speed and excitement, the performance culminated with a song that had all attendees on their feet cheering feverishly.
Sideline's highly anticipated new album, the fourth recording overall "Front & Center" released during MerleFest. It's the first album released on the Mountain Home label and was produced by Balsam Range's Tim Surrett. The band considers the new album a step up along the same path, and feel it's the best material they've ever had.
Jason was the longtime bassist for Mountain Heart, while Steve was the banjo player of IIIrd Tyme Out. When back home from playing all over the USA and abroad, Jason had a lot of people asking him "when are you going to play locally?", So he had an idea of getting some of his friends together during their downtime (typically December) to play some gigs at home. They played for a couple of years before deciding they needed a recording to sell for a little extra income. In 2012 they recorded an album, then booked and played a bluegrass festival even though they didn't have a band name yet. Since what they were doing was somewhat of a "side gig," one of the band members suggested the name Sideline, and it stuck. Sideline became a full-time band in 2014, now playing around one hundred and twenty shows a year.
The Sideline sound could best be described as a traditional based band, hard driving, with low deep tones. "We actually try to play off of Jason's double base quite a bit. We like to refer to our rhythm section of our band as the 'big block' so to speak. We branch out with contemporary music to appeal to everyone in the audience, but it never leaves the traditional deep bass. Being a musician, you try to please the musician within you. Sometimes people in the audience don't get it, so we try to make sure everybody gets it." - Steve.
One of the many things Steve likes about traveling with his bandmates is the camaraderie of a love for sports. They take time when on the road to visit sporting events. We were at Dodger Stadium one day having been to the Rose Bowl, but only able to see the grass through the fence "Nope, they wouldn't let us in." So as I saw this gate open at Dodger Stadium and started walking toward it. Jason yelled at me, "Hey man, where are you going?" I yelled back, "I'm going in this gate unless somebody stops me." No game was happening that day, so they had the whole stadium to themselves, standing directly over home plate. "We love to be tourists when we travel, trying to experience as much as we can after we play.
Unspoken Traditon is a band GraciousRoots has been following for some tome. For a bit of background, catch the 2017 article here:
Just before showtime, we caught up with Ty Gilpin of Unspoken Tradition gave us the rundown on their highly anticipated new single - LAND. The band was ecstatic to be playing MerleFest again on a warm, sunny day sporting throngs of listeners. Ty was equally enthusiastic about the release of their new single, that dropped in mid-May. Written and sung by the band’s guitar player Audie McGinnis, it’s a first-person telling of a simple landowner that finds dignity in a life led elemental. At the same time, the chorus warns that a way of life, once lost, cannot be artificially manufactured.
“Land” is a modern take on sentiments found in Bluegrass standards like “Little Cabin Home on the Hill” and “Blue Ridge Mountain Home.” Classic themes made new through a creative arrangement and original writing by a band that consciously uses an evolving style to connect the traditional to the contemporary.
“‘Land’ is about my fear that we are doing irreversible damage to our home,” says McGinnis. “I left the very small town I grew up in to live in one of the largest cities in North Carolina. It seemed like everywhere I looked, nature was being choked out by concrete, and the city seemed to gain nothing in culture or identity. It made me miss the open farmland that surrounded the area where I grew up, a place that was teeming with local color. ‘Land’ reminds us of what should be important and that which can never be replaced. We can pave over it, we can build skyscrapers on it, but we'll never be able to make more of it. We have to protect what's been given to us.”
Always a high energy, entertaining show, catch the Tuesday Bluegrass Sessions hosted by Unspoken Tradition on May 22nd at the ISIS Music Hall in Asheville, NC to see Land performed LIVE along with other bluegrass gems within the large catalogue of U.T. songs.
STEEP CANYON RANGERS:
Selected as one of the "FEATURED" artists at MerleFest 2018
Saturday morning following the Midnight Jam ... Woody Platt invited GR onto the band's tour bus for a chat.
It all began when the guys met Freshman year in 1995 at the University of North Carolina (Chapel Hill). The group came together Senior year (1999). "Chapel Hill was our turf!"- Woody
The band members all come from different musical interests and backgrounds. Woody played guitar and had a little bit of history playing some of Doc Watson's music. Graham was a soccer player at UNC-CH until he blew out his knee. What do you do when you're hobbled and rehabbing a knee? You buy a banjo. If you're a banjo picker, it's easy to understand as Graham's intro into banjo was through Jerry Garcia (think Old In The Way). None of them grew up in a bluegrass family being exposed to traditional music on a daily basis.
Charles the bass player (until late 2017) bought a bass. "So, we were kind of pushed toward bluegrass since we now had a guitar, banjo, and bass. Out of the box we were trying to be a bluegrass band." - Woody
There is, was and forever will be an incredible bluegrass community in the areas, counties surrounding Raleigh, Durham & Chapel Hill. They quickly came to understand the abilities of first and second generation pickers in the area. The motley crew of long haired college kids sought them out. They attended what Woody refers to as "super traditional settings" to try and learn from the guys. Though they were clearly outsiders, they were instantly embraced, going to jam circles, peoples homes to take lessons, invited to BBQs and places where everyone got together to play. They were not anticipating the formation of a band, it was instead an organic process just for fun.
Jamming just for fun, the guys never imagined playing as a career, now eighteen years later. Half of the band is made up of college buddies, while the other half is hometown (Brevard, NC) buddies. It becomes abundantly clear that this band is a band of great friends. A good comparison, Balsam Range is another excellent example of friends working and having fun together, and both have mainly kept the original formation intact.
The Steep Canyon Rangers' sound is unique across the board, both vocally and instrumentally. "We have our own sound, and sometimes your limitations kind of make your sound, so we ran in our own direction. The good news about writing your own music, you can only be compared to yourself. (laughter). Seriously, the main reason we decided to write our own music, you know, someone writes and performs their own song, and it's done so well, why would you want to change that?" - Woody
The Steep Canyon Rangers sport a very nice trajectory of growth over the last ten years of success. "The band is successful, but we want to be more successful. We're having a good time, so we want to take this thing up a notch." - Woody
Woody shares two gems from MerleFests past:
"We can tell stories for days and days, laughing. We came to MerleFest for so many years as fans. We would come up for the whole weekend and never make it up to the stages. We'd pick all night and sleep all day and never make it up to the music because the campground is a whole other world. Unfortunately, I haven't been back to the campground since they started hiring us to play, but this place has a bunch of history. For us to be sitting here, and closing it down on Sunday? It's surreal.
Here's another Merlefest Story, about us we playing. They asked us to back up Curly Seckler from Flatt and Scruggs - he was in his late 80s. They told us someone will send you a set of Flatt and Scruggs stuff. Y'all sing it, he'll sing tenor, play guitar and front the show. Learn the songs and meet him at the hotel to run over the songs. So, we already knew most of them but ran over a few that we didn't know. We met Curly and played the Traditional Tent - it's a HUGE honor getting to be Flatt & Scruggs for an hour - a tall order. Everything is going great and we kick it off with Katie Hill in (G) like Flatt & Scruggs would do - go around three times and tag it. I looked over at Curly, and he's playing the (A) chord as hard as he can. I'm thinking this is going to be terrible. Right after that he got on track, played great, sang great, emceed, and we played Salty Dog Blues, receiving a standing ovation, and he looked over at Graham and said: "Kick it off again." I thought we'd play the chorus and get out; instead, we played the whole thing twice and then got another standing ovation. Yup, we actually played the entire song twice."
BE ADVISED: This is not your grandpa's sitting in a rocker while slowly sippin' lemonade type of bluegrass. It's "raw, soulful, and comes with plenty of swagger. With that kind of assessment, why wouldn't you run to their webpage to check for the next live performances? In the crowded Asheville, NC music scene where top-shelf music abounds, Town Mountain has found their niche.
The MerleFest Dance Tent
(A stage set up under a tent labeled the dance tent)
You're sure it will be a pretty darn good time when you have a dance floor in front of the stage. There was a request between MerleFest and Town Mountain to have Town Mountain play the Dance Tent. "That being the case, we planned on going as hard as we could." says Jesse Lanlais, the banjo player for Town Mountain. "We typically are having a blast playing music, but a band is way more engaged when the audience is more engaged. It's a symbiotic relationship. If the group starts off putting 100% into their music, the audience recognizes it and likewise gets into the show. Once the band notices the audience engaging, they typically find another 'gear' so to speak, which is one of the beautiful things about playing live music - the relationship between the audience and the band."
Town Mountain has moved up from the smaller venues in Asheville, now playing The Orange Peel; although, they still play lots of smokey bars, the band has graduated to the Big Time. They've played the Ryman Auditorium as well as The Grand Ole Opry twice. "The Oprey is the pinnacle. To step on that stage? An awesome experience."
The pool of talent in Ashevile, is always amazing to see who's from the area and the talent they have. Some folks may not even play music professionally. It's a culturally rich environment that's stimulating, inspiring and pushes musicians to step up their game.
Town Mountain Story:
The band started ten or eleven years ago, mostly as a side project for a couple of years at which point they decided the band had something good and should pursue it a little harder, agreeing to make a strong push. The future Town Mountan band members met through the Asheville scene at The Town Pump Bluegrass Jam (no longer exists), which happened every Sunday for many years and The Jack In The Wood Jam on Thursdays. Now the ISIS Theater Jam and the Jack In the Wood are the meeting places for all the bluegrass musicians to go pick and hang out.
Town Mountain has always had a strong emphasis on paying homage to the bluegrass sets that they love from first, and second generation bluegrass bands. They didn't want to take a bluegrass band on the road that was playing all of the same songs. The concept was to maintain some semblence of that old school feel, with old school "musicality ideas," while also writing their own material. Therby, playing new material and honoring past bluegrass musicians. It wasn't long until they realized they didn't want to be just an Asheville band playing four times a month. Town Mountain had to take it on the road. Ten years later, they're playing the Grand Ole Opry and vaulted into the higher escelon of bluegrass bands.
I mention to Jesse that Whiskey and Tears takes me back to the AM Radio years of my youth. "That's actually a great comment in my opinion, and a compliment of the highest regard."
Keep an ear out for Town Mountain's new album New Freedom Blues scheduled for a September/October release. Recorded at Echo Mountain, the band is treading on a bit of new ground. Jesse explains "Some of the material is going to be straight up bluegrass that's going to remind you of music off of the Southern Crescent or Leave the Bottle albums, and some of the other stuff is a little more crossover/Americana with drums on most of it and some pedal steel on some of it. A few of the songs are a departure from your textbook bluegrass sound. All origional material. This is the most positive I've felt walking away from the studio with Town Mountain. I've felt positive in the past, but I'm really, really excited about this album."
They've been on the secene for a number of years and played countless festivals
THE NOTE ROPERS:
The Note Ropers are a Honky Tonk/Rockabilly band from Greenville, SC., playing authentic Honky Tonk Country combined with traditional Rockabilly to produce what they call “Honkabilly” music. The band presents with a Hank William’s style Crooner strummin’ backed by an Upright Dawghouse bassist, Hollowbody guitar picker, Standup Non-Pedal Steel guitarist, and Stand up drummer.
They put their own spin on their original music and covers with a respectful nod to their mentors. The Note Ropers come to entertain the crowd in the style of the entertainers of the 1930’s –60’s. From custom stage attire, instruments, comic relief, and professional delivery, they obviously enjoy what they do and make sure their audience is entertained. They say, “If you don’t have fun at our show, then you had better check your pulse. We will have you tappin’ your foot and dancing in no time! We aim to bring enjoyment to our friends and neighbors through our music. Hope to see you in a Honky Tonk real soon.”
The Velo Fellow in downtown Greenville, SC is one of the local haunts. Don't missThe Note Ropers LIVE June 23rd.
What do you say about Balsam Range that hasn't already been said? Mountain Voodoo was just another in a long string of enjoyable albums to win national acclaim. Top Tip: If you haven't heard the boys from WNC crank up the heat on Blue Collar Dreams, you're in for a fun ride! (READ GraciousRoots Talks to Buddy Melton of Balsam Range)
Not a band to sit on their laurels, Balsam Range continues to innovate as those in attendance at MerleFest 2018 discovered. With arrangements created by Wes Funderburk and Shelley Washington, the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble played with Balsam Range on a selection of their best bluegrass hits. Tom Gibson, the assistant conductor of the Atlanta Pops Orchestra as well as a trombone player for the troupe, took center stage during a section of ‘One Way Out’ by the Allman Brothers Band. Effectively playing the slide guitar part on the slide trombone.
We caught up with Buddy and Darren soon after the show as they met with a large contingent of exuberant fans by the Autograph Tent. Although somewhat spent from their performance, the excitement level they exhibited was palpable. The band is still having tons of fun together, and they look forward to playing MerleFest each year. The partnership and live performance with the Atlanta Pops Orchestra Ensemble was icing on the cake.
The album was released on the day of their performance at MerleFest, April 27.