Festival review: MerleFest turns 25 with Americana stars small, big and massive, April 26-29

Béla Fleck at MerleFest 2012. flickr.com/photos/cpthornton/7154846982

It’s easy to underestimate the impact that MerleFest has on Americana music, and for anyone who hasn’t attended, it’s perhaps equally easy to overlook.

Initially a tribute to the late Merle Watson, Doc Watson’s son and musical partner, the festival has evolved into one of the biggest of its kind, on par only with Hardly Strictly Bluegrass in San Francisco, both of which draw between 70 and 80,000 people each year.

One of the many things that set MerleFest apart is that it is the first large-scale event of the season. Jerry Douglas has played at every festival since it began 25 years ago, and he noted from the stage this year that it’s like coming out of hibernation, a chance to see how so many musical friends have wintered. For everyone who arrives from anywhere north of Wilkesboro, N.C. — as I do each year — it’s the first time to wear shorts, sneeze at the pollen and get a good burn.

It’s also a community festival. Wilkesboro is as far from San Fran, and indeed any metropolis, as you can get. Four thousand volunteers work the grounds, take the tickets and run the shows, North Carolina’s answer to the Oberammergau.

Still, there is a kind of an industry trade show vibe, which is nice too, as it feels a bit like being in the center of something big — and, well, you are. The new names on the roster are often ones to take note of, if only because this is a venue that has brought so many artists to larger audience recognition. (This is the festival that gave first big breaks to Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, Martha Scanlon, Tift Merritt, and indeed many others.) And the big names are also out in force, this year including Douglas, Alison Krauss, Vince Gill, Punch Brothers, Los Lobos, Dailey and Vincent, Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, Béla Fleck, Claire Lynch, Marty Stuart and Tony Rice.

Ultimately, there’s a lot going on. And while everyone has their own tastes, and bring their own perspectives, here are some thoughts on the events of this year:

Run, don’t walk, to see Blind Boy Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks.

There is a growing interest in the music of the ’20s and ’30s, though this is a band that seems to have arrived via time machine from that era. Complete with banjos, fiddle, ukes, scrub board and a singing saw, the novelty actually comes in how fun and vibrant the music is. Recordings don’t do it justice, and in any case it’s a bit of a job to get a hold of the band’s two releases. They started out busking on the streets of Asheville, though for the last two years they have rocked MerleFest.

Small is good.

The main stage of the festival has all the polished work, the big names and the flashy showmanship — which is fine of course, but can be boring after a while. Alison Krauss is great, but there aren’t any real surprises. She does her set, and her rehearsed encores, and if you’ve seen her before, you’ve heard the banter as well. At the smaller stages, I think, things get more interesting. One of the highlights was the Williamson Brothers, performing traditional brother duets just as you’d expect them to be sung, by two brothers. In this case, Tony and Gary, who can make you feel as if you’re sitting in their living room. Tony’s mandolin playing is superb, and Gary’s guitar provides a very close, beautiful accompaniment.

Some other brothers, the Kruger Brothers, received a response that, given that most have never heard of them, defies belief, yet also earns it. They began playing MerleFest in 1997, and have gained a fan base here that follows them around, packs every venue they play at and gives them ovation after ovation. Their infectious energy is made all the more amazing given that they sit on chairs and barely move. This year was the best I’ve ever seen them.

Workshops at MerleFest are hosted by Happy Traum, and more often than not are the most personal, beautiful and suspiring spots all weekend. Performers arrive, coffees in hand, ready to play together. And it’s magical. At least I think so. David Holt did “Trouble In Mind” and, if you weren’t there, I think you really missed something that you just can’t get at the bigger stages.

Tony Rice is King.

That’s all I wanted to say.

Right. The Waybacks.

The Album Hour has taken on a life of its own, with the Waybacks (i.e., James Nash, his ego, and the two other guys) leading a romp — special guests galore — through a classic rock album, track by track. This year was Hendrix’s “Are You Experienced,” and it attracted the massive crowds that are common for this annual set. And it was probably fine until Nash, taking showing off to new heights — he recreated all of the classic Hendrix solos without giving anyone else much of a turn, as if in a pissing match with himself — attempted to set his guitar on fire. You know: lighter fluid, matches. The security stopped it, and a sheepish Nash, chastened, returned to the stage; the only thing singed were his wings. It was awkward.

Doc Watson.

I’ve been going to this festival for 11 years. It was a joy, my first year, to sit literally feet away from Doc Watson as he played “Black Mountain Rag.” He was 78 then, and was still setting many of the standards. But time marches on for him as it does for all of us, and his age is now truly catching up with him. I suspect this was the last time I’ll see him on stage, and to be absolutely frank, I hope that it is. My two cents is that it does not dignify this national treasure by putting him on stage at this point in his career. Next year I hope to see him there, at the side of the stage, receiving accolades from a distance as opposed to being seated center stage with a guitar in his hands. I say this out of immense respect for a man that has done so much for music, and inspired so many to make music of their own.