Olivia Newton John certainly brought the song Banks of the Ohio to a wide audience, but it actually originated in the 19th century. It’s one of a great number of murder ballads in the canon of traditional American music. And it may be surprising to learn that Olivia’s isn’t the first version that pops up on a Google search for videos of the song. That honour belongs to a duet between Bill Monroe and Doc Watson. Merlefest is named for Doc’s son Merle who died in an accident on the family farm in 1985.
Friday was our second day at Merlefest and we drove along from our hotel to park in a designated lot and pick up a shuttle bus again. The heavens opened as we approached Wilkesboro and, after we parked, we spent a further ten minutes sitting in the car hoping for the rain to relent. We had brought our instruments with us today with the intention of perhaps joining a jam at some point, but between the awful weather and sheer cowardice we decided to leave them in the car. Eventually the rain let up slightly and we headed to the festival proper.
We had each downloaded the Merlefest app, which was a real help in trying to decide which act on which of the thirteen different stages we wanted to see. Our first stop was to go and see Wayne Henderson, who would be on stage with one of the Wednesday night jammers from Independence, VA. He was appearing on the Traditional stage at 12:30 so we made our way along there in good time, but were still lucky to get seats. Appearing alongside Wayne were a couple of young guitarists whom he has mentored and who play his guitars. One of them is a quite astonishingly talented fourteen-year-old by the name of Presley Barker. He played a tune called Nashville Pickin’ which he played as an eleven-year-old to win an adult guitar competition. It’s enough to make you either give up or try harder. I’m not sure which, yet.
We wandered from stage to stage, catching various acts along the way and enjoying them all. One of the most fun things we saw was Gordie MacKeeman and His Rhythm Boys, a Canadian outfit who played some great tunes and Gordie danced like a demented leprechaun.
We headed back at a reasonable time to avoid the end of festival rush for the shuttle buses, and I’m glad we did. Someone told us later that they had waited two hours for a shuttle at the very end of the day.
Saturday started much brighter and we had determined that we would get to the festival early and join one of the jams before they got too crowded. After a quick breakfast, we packed up and headed over to Wilkesboro. We arrived at the Bluegrass Picking Tent just as the first musicians were unpacking so we steeled our nerve, tuned up and sat in. It went surprisingly well. We both, of course, declined any opportunity to take a break (in bluegrass, a solo is called a break) but we were reasonably happy playing backup. I even trotted out my party piece and sang Gotta Travel On which, I’m delighted to say, attracted a crowd. And not in the way a road accident attracts a crowd – people joined in on the chorus. Everyone loves a singalong.
As it got busier, we made way for more accomplished musicians. The festival has a special cloakroom facility where you can check your instruments for free, so we dropped them off and headed to the festival proper.
Our first stop was the main stage where there was a set by Merlefest veterans – musicians who had attended every one of the thirty-one Merlefests to date. Of particular interest for us was that Sam Bush was playing mandolin and Jerry Douglas was on dobro – both masters of their craft. Straight after this, we moved to the Creekside stage for what I found to be an irresistible session: Mando Mania. This featured a half dozen of the best mandolin players on the planet jamming along to tunes they selected themselves. They also introduced us to their own personal mandolins, two of which were Lloyd Loar signed Gibson F-5s. This will mean absolutely nothing to most people but, to provide real-world context, across all six players there was roughly a half-million dollars worth of mandolin on that stage. They were great to listen to, and they even played a tune that I can play, which delighted me. A bluesy little Bill Monroe tune called Bluegrass Stomp.
After these guys, we stayed at the Creekside Stage to watch Molly Tuttle. Molly was the first woman ever to win the IBMA Guitar Player of the Year award. I happen to know she had a very good teacher as her father, Jack Tuttle, was my mandolin tutor at Sore Fingers last year and he was brilliant. After Molly, we headed over to the Walker Centre stage to watch Ana Egge and The Sentimentals.
We have had a great couple of days watching music at Merlefest and we still have Sunday to go. Looking forward to that!