MerleFest 2016 Recap

May 4, 2016

Recap by Joe Kendrick -- Wilkesboro is only some 90 miles away from where I live, but going there for MerleFest always seems to transport me across much more than that short space and time. Winding my way through the rolling hills up highway 18 in late April has a uniquely soothing effect, and shifts my thoughts through the gears of choruses and solos, and faces and conversations of all the festivals I’ve attended. The 29th annual MerleFest was marked by the usual array of top-notch musical talent, of old friends and new, sunshine and rain (the first MerleFest I can recall where I didn’t need a jacket at all), and the time I finally got it together to bring an audio recorder to get some interviews. Read on for some highlights from the festival as well as interviews with Kenny and Amanda Smith, “Uncle” Ted White, Scythian, Billy Strings, Ivy from South Carolina Broadcasters, Pete Wernick and festival volunteer David Maston.

MerleFest is on the plus size for festivals in the region, so it’s always noteworthy to check how many people you expect or hope to see, but miss entirely or see just in passing. This year I only saw Martin Anderson and Jim Lauderdale the first night, Joe Greene the second night, and completely missed Richard Beard. I did, however, finally get to take in a set with Carol Rifkin and John Fowler. There were a number of other friends and acquaintances that materialized not at all or only briefly, and this is something I’ve gotten used to. It’s not the same haystack as, say, Bonnaroo, but finding your fellow needles on the grounds of Wilkes Community College without prior planning can be iffy, especially once the place is full and cell phones are all gasping for a signal.

Although we had no chance to get a few minutes with John Prine for an interview, he made up for it with a rousing set to begin things on Thursday night. I may lose some DJ cred here, but I haven’t seen him before now, and it was a must. Prine is a national treasure.

Kenny and Amanda Smith with daughter Annabelle Blake Smith making her stage debut.
Credit Joe Kendrick

Friday brought a full afternoon of emceeing at Creekside stage along with temperatures in the 80s, which is almost unheard of there in late April. I got to see two first-time groups perform in Susie Glaze and the Hilonesome Band, from Los Angeles, and Blue Mafia, from Indiana, as well as MerleFest regulars like Pete Wernick and Kenny and Amanda Smith (who surprised everyone with the stage debut of their lovely daughter Annabelle to close their set). I couldn’t resist asking Pete Wernick if he knew any banjo jokes. He did.

Saturday saw grey skies, mist and fog to begin the day and a downpour to end it. In between I got to emcee at the dance tent and interview caller “Uncle” Ted White, and another new band to the festival, Michigan outfit Billy Strings, who added Drew Matulich on mandolin and Oliver Craven of The Stray Birds on fiddle. My one faux-pas while emceeing was letting Billy Strings go on for an encore when they were really out of time. I was going on what the hundreds of ravenous fans were yelling at the moment, however, and did enjoy the band’s cover of Jimmy Martin’s “Free Born Man” before being mildly chastened for going over on time.

Saturday night found me prowling around behind Watson stage, angling for any chance to whip out the recorder for Sam Bush or Dave Rawlings Machine. Pretty soon I could read the tea leaves and tell that this was just the wrong place to try for such things: the artists were laser focused on getting ready to perform or getting ready to go on to their next performance. The best I managed was to shake hands with David and Gillian as they departed for the Midnight Jam.

Dave Rawlings Machine at MerleFest 2016.
Credit Joe Kendrick

There was a whole lot more, including some great food at Cagney’s in Wilkesboro and time hanging out with Steep Canyon Rangers and Scythian in their buses. And walking. Miles of walking on the one pair of shoes that I remembered to bring because they were already on my feet. Souvenirs (note to self: shop for the MerleFest tie dye before the second day when they’re all sold out). Staying up late, and getting up the same. I’m still catching up on rest and already looking forward to giving even more for next year’s 30th anniversary.

Recap by Richard Beard -- All in all, a very enjoyable MerleFest for Vicky and I.  A few surprises --  of course  --  some new friends, and some interesting dilemmas behind the scenes. I was stationed primarily at Hillside this year, by request, as I have found my MerleFest home with that particular crew.  A good group. Be advised that I didn't get to hear everything I wanted to hear, due to my schedule, but here is my personal take for the last four days.

"We are definitely  having a good time":   has to go to Shinyribs, an absolute blowout and one of the tightest units I heard all weekend. Some of the best  -- and tasteful  -- funk/soul I've been around.  I inadvertently brought them on too soon (see below),  but they were ready, the sound was ready, and when the drummer shrugged at me,  I took the initiative. They appreciated the extra playing  time, and the crowd response was explosive.  I tried to signal one of the back up singers, "ten minutes" at the end of the set,  but all she did was nod and smile.  They announced their final number and were off in a flash, and I crossed my fingers.  The intensity increased, but suddenly, Shinyrib wheeled back and off the stage while the band continued on. Anticipating it was the finale, I hung at the back of the curtain flap, since they had make a splash with his careening onto the stage at the start of the show, until realizing that instead of disappearing, he had gone in front of the stage and had organized a CONGA LINE IN THE FRONT which went on for a full five minutes with the band in overdrive.  True showmen. 

A short time after the band arrival, our sound board tech realized his board has lost all it's prearranged coordinates for the band   -- a very large band  --  and we had to play catch up. Fortunately, they had their own sound guy with them, and between the two of them, did a full preliminary sound check in about 12 minutes.  With just a little tweaking during the first minute or so, the mix was spot on  --  and all this before the designated start time.  I have an entirely new appreciation for the sound people. 

"My bottom lip  is stuck to the top of my shirt, and I am drooling on myself":  goes to Tommy Emmanual. Now, I was well aware of Tommy's reputation, but I had never seen him play live.   A one man tour de force.  Inventive, comic, touching, forceful, and a percussive scheme during one set with a drum brush, a guitar, his two hands,  and a microphone that left the audience in awe. A Beatles medley that began with "While My Guitar Gently Weeps"  until a few seconds later, as the sun came out, he muttered in his Aussie accent,"Wait! I've got a better idea" and, slapping his capo on, dove into "Here Comes the Sun" with the audience supplying the vocals, and later, flinging the capo over his shoulder,  continuing on with the first song. One fellow guitar player summed it all up after the performance: "I'm going home and burn all my guitars."  To top it  off, a truly nice gentleman, very eloquent both onstage and off. One of only 5 people to receive Chet Atkins' CGP designation. Wow.  

MerleFest 2016
Credit Joe Kendrick

"Please Contact Earth"  goes to another international act, Kacy and Clayton, two young folks from Saskatchewan, with harmonies reminiscent  of early British folk who I caught on the Cabin Stage as a strange segue awaiting Old Crow.  He plays a mean, and tasteful,  guitar, and while the vocals were interesting, especially the intricate harmony work, the woman's stage presence left me thinking she was involved with some kind of high powered hallucinogen. "Oh, Look," she said with a disembodied quality, pointing to the wide screen monitors, "we're  watching you, watching us on TV."    Later holding up a finger, she eyed the glowing screens once more, and said, "look, you never know when you'll see a finger on television," holding up a digit and slowly moving it around in the air.  Could be the outcome of fracking, I just don't know. 

"What song IS that?"  award goes to Sam Bush, for pulling out an obscure Dylan song and giving it electric firepower in his Saturday night set before the deluge set in.  I can't even tell you what album it's on, but I'm going to find out.  As always, Sam made it his own, and very topical to boot. A highlight. Not to mention Sam's eloquent words about MerleFest that followed. 

"Be Glad Your Irish" goes to We Banjo 3, which blew the top off the Dance Tent on Friday afternoon. True, I'm biased, but stellar musicianship, and a truly exhilarating stage presence, with a lot of humor. Super high energy. 

"We Are Family"  award goes to the bands that did covers of Haggard's "Tonight the Bottle," and Prince's "Purple Rain."  I ask you, what other festival are both of those going to seem equally appropriate? And appreciated? 

Quote of the Festival  goes to John Prine, who, after describing his grandparents, said, "all I wanted when I grew up was to be an old person."  Then, with a short pause, said, "Congratulations."  Aside from his gyro maniac mandolin player, a very, very memorable set.   Check out the recent interview in the NY Times. 

I Gotta Be Me goes to Jerry Douglas, who in an esoteric set of free form  Flux-Jazz, complete with horns, had little to say to the audience. He did all his talking while sticking mostly to his electric frying pan. Did his inclusion of a number referencing the Flintstones mean a nod to his own approaching dinosaur status, and providing a means to again branch out in an unusual direction?  I thought the set moved by quickly, although the folks sitting directly behind me did not. 

Visiting the Past goes to the sales rep from Cedar Creek, who, it turns out, worked for Ovation the same time I did in the 1980s. We spent a good 20 minutes rehashing the good, and the bad, of the company. I always wondered what would have happened had I taken up their offer to relocate to Conn.  My daughter would now have a Yankee accent.  

A Big Nod of Appreciation goes to the mysterious force that parted the storms on both sides of the Fest Thursday night. The main buzz among the staff around the campus was that Doc was responsible. I concur. 

That's What It's All About  goes to the Doc tribute on Creekside sat. afternoon. I only caught the last half after reporting for duty, but as the A -Listers shuffled in and out for a quick stint in front of the mic, it was apparent all shared a common bond with their love of Doc, illustrating again the powerful force of Doc's personality to unite people.  It makes me glad I was one of the people who had the opportunity to meet Doc, and talk with him. 

and finally,  Thanks You Guys goes to Jim, Dale, Jon, and Ray at the Hillside stage, who have accepted me as part of the clan and trust my ability to do my job. When Jon Rorer gave me a big on-stage hug as I brought him on, telling the crowd as he held onto me that "we're all family,"  I knew that, yes, we're all part of a really special enterprise, one of the few things that can brings actual joy into the hearts of people.  

I Like Making NC Home award goes to everyone involved with MerleFest. As I tried to soft sell during my monologues for people out of state, MerleFest is the REAL North Carolina, aside from our recent bad publicity nationwide.