Summer is the time of outdoor music festivals. Following a year of coronavirus lockdown, many musicians are able to return to the road and play in front of fans for the first time in months.
As More to Come heads into our summer hiatus, we’ll highlight several of the festivals I’ve attended through the years along with the songs from favorite bands that are guaranteed to set off a buzz in the crowds. Perhaps one or more will encourage you to find a nearby festival to attend.
In the beginning
My first music festivals were Mac Wiseman’s Renfro Valley Blue Grass Music Festival in Kentucky and the Tennessee Valley Old-Time Fiddlers Convention in Athens, Alabama. Wiseman had one of the smoothest voices in early bluegrass, and I drove up from Tennessee to Renfro Valley in the mid-1970s and camped in an open field just so I could hear tunes like Wabash Cannonball.
During the 1970s, I saw the Earl Scruggs Revue — the band formed by the banjo legend with his sons following the breakup of Flatt and Scruggs — at multiple festivals. No matter the venue or audience, the final tune was always the Scruggs classic, Foggy Mountain Breakdown, performed here with Gary and Randy Scruggs, fiddler Vassar Clements, and dobro master Josh Graves.
During our fifteen years in Staunton, I often attended the local Oak Grove festival. There we heard a number of wonderful musicians — Guy Clark, Bryan Bowers, Stephen Bennett, Claire Lynch, Trapezoid, Bill Staines — in this intimate, wooded setting. For many of those years local favorites Robin and Linda Williams were the hosts, and their song (co-written with Jerome Clark) Rolling and Rambling (The Death of Hank Williams), is always a favorite.
Oak Grove 2021 is scheduled for August 27-29 and will feature Robin and Linda Williams, Cathy Fink & Marcy Marxer, and others.
The tradition-plus festival begun in 1988 by Doc Watson following the death of his son and long-time musical partner Merle was my festival of choice for many years beginning in the early 2000s. I’ve heard countless bands and unexpected collaborations there through the years, but the 2012 festival really stands out for me.
The Steel Wheels were Thursday’s bridge on the Cabin Stage between two more famous main stage artists. The crowds were headed for the food tents when lead singer Trent Wagler slammed his cymbal stick into the floor and the band went into Rain in the Valley. People literally turned around in the aisle and went back to their seats to hear the 30-minute set that led to full crowds at other venues whenever they performed throughout the weekend.
Merlefest 2012 was also the final one for the 89-year-old festival patriarch Doc Watson, who passed away a month after the event. Beginning with a 1974 performance at the old Exit/In in Nashville, I saw Doc live more times than any other performer in traditional and acoustic roots music. This video from 1979 of his signature Tennessee Stud — with Merle on guitar, T. Michael Coleman on bass, and Marty Stuart on mandolin — is the Doc I remember from my younger days. Tennessee Stud, which he made famous on the Will the Circle Be Unbroken album, often closed out his show in those years.
Finally, Sam Bush had played at each of the 24 previous Merlefests before 2012, and you figured he had something up his sleeve for the 25th anniversary. The Sam Bush Band opened the final set on Friday evening with John Hartford’s Vamp in the Middle. After a few more songs, Sam introduced Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi of the Tedeschi Trucks Band — Saturday evening’s headliner. They kicked off Bell Bottom Blues and the night, which was already special, turned magical. Next came Gimme Shelter, followed by Bush bringing out his former New Grass Revival band mates Bela Fleck and John Cowan for a tribute to the late Levon Helm. When the music morphed into the old standard Cripple Creek, banjo wizards Fleck and Scott Vestal traded licks and choruses. The crowd was buzzing about the show the rest of the weekend.
Merlefest 2021 is set for September 16-19 with Sturgill Simpson, Margo Price, Tedeschi Trucks, Melissa Ethridge, Sam Bush, Amythyst Kiah, Yasmin Williams, The Waybacks, and the incomparable Mavis Staples among the headliners.
Red Wing, held in Mount Solon in the splendor of Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley, is another festival I’ve attended on multiple occasions. The event is hosted by The Steel Wheels, and they always have a great set. One of the fan favorites is Long Way to Go, with their extended jam in the middle that takes a ride into the frenetic finish.
Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen gave a spirited performance late one evening at Red Wing. I enjoy the energy in their instrumental M80, which they played that evening to the delight of the festival’s night owls.
The incomparable Claire Lynch has played Oak Grove, Merlefest, Red Wing, and the Institute of Musical Traditions shows here in the Washington area. I’ve attended them all and can say that she never disappoints. Claire will often end her performances with one of her fan favorites, the extended version of Wabash Cannonball, with an encore that was written by my cousin Hershey Reeves, Your Presence is My Favorite Gift.
Let’s take it home
Based on the east coast, I haven’t had the pleasure of attending the iconic festivals in the west, such as Telluride and San Francisco’s Hardly Strictly Bluegrass. Nonetheless, I’ve heard great acoustic music through the years at venues from Annapolis to Charlottesville, Nashville to Claremont (California). Among those musicians who always pleases, Jerry Douglas is one of my personal favorites, especially when he rips into Who’s Your Uncle, the closing song of one of his recent sets in Annapolis and heard here live in the Bluegrass Underground show on PBS.
Darrell Scott and Tim O’Brien display incredible songwriting talent, improvisational genius, and vocal chops in all their performances. Long Time Gone, which the Chicks made a hit, was written by Scott. This live version from Raleigh has some tasty interplay of mandolin and guitar beginning at the 3:33 mark.
Tony Rice is another musician I enjoyed watching countless times in multiple venues before his death last Christmas Day. One of his most memorable shows for me was at the old Lime Kiln Theatre in Lexington, Virginia. While the Tony Rice Unit often closed their show by playing the fiddle tune Sally Goodin, it is hard to get more of a crowd favorite than Freeborn Man as played by Rice at Merlefest 1991 with Mark O’Connor, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Mark Schatz
Another festival favorite from that same performance is Sam Bush, singing of the demise of William McKinley, in the White House Blues. Fun historical fact: this was the song Bill Monroe chose to have Earl Scruggs play on his debut with Monroe’s band on the Grand Ole Opry. Many musical historians point to that event as when bluegrass music was founded.
It may be difficult to find a better festival favorite than Nickel Creek’s The Fox, which closed all their shows (and their reunion show) for years. Depending on how they were feeling, the mid-song jam could go on for a looong time. My daughter Claire and I heard this version at Merlefest 2006*, when they only did a “modified” jam (i.e., under 10 minutes). Check out Thile’s mandolin solo beginning at 4:04. I remember it well. I remember it when they closed out the show in Charlottesville from the Farewell for Now tour in 2007. And I remember it as they closed their 25th Reunion Tour shows in 2014. A true signature tune, The Fox is a festival favorite that never grows old.
Enjoy some live music this summer.
More to come…
Image: The Hillside Stage — ready for another Album Hour with the Waybacks and friends — at Merlefest, by DJB.
*No matter what the description says below the video, this was from Merlefest. Just look at the signage on the stage.