Sometimes the best gifts come in small packages. That’s how it felt for me on the opening evening of the 25th anniversary of Merlefest – the Americana music festival tucked away in the hills of North Carolina.
Opening day at Merlefest is the easiest to navigate, because virtually all the music is centered around the main “Watson Stage” – named for the blind guitarist Doc Watson from nearby Deep Gap and his late son and musical partner Merle. (It was Merle’s tragic passing on October 23, 1985 that led to the first festival twenty-five years ago in 1988.) Juggling between the 14 venues and making tough decisions about which acts to see and which acts to miss only happens later in the weekend.
So I arrived after my drive from Silver Spring in time to catch the first of the main acts on the Watson Stage – The Boxcars. Coming together after stints with Alison Krauss + Union Station, J.D. Crowe, and Blue Moon, this is a “new” band with a lot of experience. Even with mandolinist Adam Steffey under the weather, they produced a terrific kick-off set of good contemporary bluegrass.
The other Watson Stage acts were equally strong. Donna the Buffalo with guest Jim Lauderdale (above) had the joint jumping, with tunes such as Except For That One Time and the accordion/washboard-fueled Hot Tamale Baby. Both Donna the Buffalo and Lauderdale are long-time Merlefest favorites, and it was clear that many had come to the Watson Stage area to hear their set, and then had plans to skip out to the food or merchandise tents.
But Merlefest is full of surprises. There is this small “cabin” stage that sits to the side of the Watson stage, and while the main acts set up, small half-hour sets are performed, sometimes by up-and-coming artists and sometimes by big names playing solo. The music never stops in this area, and you can hear some real gems.
That was the case tonight. When the last notes of the Buffalo/Lauderdale set were ringing out, festival goers were heading up the aisle. But many were stopped dead in their tracks…and then returned to their seats…by the opening number from a Shenandoah Valley band that hails from Harrisonburg, Virginia, near my old stomping grounds of Staunton.
The Steel Wheels kicked off their Cabin Stage set (above and at the top of the post) with an incredibly powerful a cappella number, Rain in the Valley, and then held the crowd in their hands until they wrapped up with The Shape I’m In as a tribute to the recently-departed Levon Helm. While short in time, the band’s set won many new fans last night as evidenced by the standing ovation they received.
The other gift in a small package came later on the Cabin Stage, when Jim Lauderdale, Claire Lynch, and western singer Wylie Gustafson shared solo tunes on a songwriter showcase. Special treats included Gustafson’s Buck Up and Huck It — three little vingettes of modern western life woven into one song — Lynch’s Wednesday Child tune for all the “bad boys” — and then a beautiful bit of high plains yodeling as the festival grounds grew quiet to let the clear notes from Gustafson sail off into the clear spring evening.
The final two Watson Stage acts for the evening certainly satisfied those who came for the headliners. I’m not a huge fan of Dailey & Vincent, but I was more impressed with this set than with my first encounter at Merlefest three years ago. They’ve dropped some of the canned stage patter, added B.J. Cherryholmes to the band to play some hot fiddle (on Black Eyed Susie and the show-closing Lee Highway Blues) and sing some beautiful harmony. While I know I’m not suppose to say this, having lived in Staunton for 15 years, but a little bit of the old Statler Brothers style goes a long way with me…and Dailey & Vincent have adopted it as a big part of their show (including the incredibly low bass notes in the harmony).
Vince Gill (above and left) came on stage with a bit of an Eric Clapton look…scruffy beard, black glasses…and on at least a couple of tunes could have given the old guitar master a run for his money. Oklahoma Borderline is his show-off guitar number, and he didn’t disappoint.
But Gill also knows “I live in a big house because I sing high like a woman” and so the majority of his show featured his vocals on love songs. Gill was having fun, however, and before singing a cheating song (“country music today doesn’t have enough cheating songs” he opined), he asked for a show of hands of people who “were here this weekend with someone they shouldn’t be…just to see who was going to like this song the best.” He also credited his bluegrass roots with teaching him the harmonic structure for vocals that shaped his country music career.
The evening’s final gift came in the dance tent on the way out to the car. Blind Boy Chocolate & The Milk Sheiks – who will NEVER be confused as a mainline country music act – were raising the roof with their unique takes on Frankie and Johnny and a bunch of other “old songs.” That’s the Merlefest I wanted to remember as I headed out into the night.
More to come…