Above photos [clockwise from bottom left]: Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder pick up a storm on the Watson Stage, banjo legend Earl Scruggs sits in with The Chieftains (photos by Steve LaBate), Allison Moorer, also sitting in with The Chieftains (photo by Katie Vesser)
It’s considerably drier Saturday afternoon. As the sun beats down from a cloud-dotted blue sky, I hear the sound of the Avett Brothers floating toward the Paste booth on vendor row. I’d already seen the Avetts rip it up on the Austin stage the previous day, but the music is calling and I can’t resist another round.
When I step up to the side of the Americana stage, Scott and Seth Avetts’ dad, Jim, and a friend are furiously working to retune and restring guitars and banjos. The way the Avetts attack their instruments, it’s hard to keep up. “The all-time record,” says Jim, “is 23 broken strings in one show.”
Mr. Avett continues bragging on his boys, but not just for their musical talent. “People ask me If I’m proud of my boys,” he drawls thoughtfully, “and I say, ‘No more proud than I am when they help me out at home.’”
You see, the Avetts, whom everyone seems to be falling in love with this weekend, came to a crossroads with their music a few years ago, as every young band does. It was getting to the point where they had to make a decision—get real jobs and relegate the rockin’ and rollin’ to weekend hobby, or dive headfirst into the fire, hitting the road full-force, you know, really making a go at it. Like any good Southern boys, they asked their father for advice.
“I told ’em that when you’re still young is the time to roll the dice,” says Mr. Avett, “so you don’t look back when you’re older and say, ‘what if?’”
With the way the Merlefest crowd is responding to the Avett Brothers’ set, it seems like Pop’s advice was right on the money. As these goodhearted scoundrels pluck and strum their way through a nice little ditty about “killin’ your girlfriend’s lover,” the crowd claps along. Even after driving 18 hours straight to make the gig, and basically stepping straight out of the van and onto the stage yesterday, Scott and Seth Avett and their partner in crime, bassist Bob Crawford show no signs of going through the motions. They close the set with “Salvation Song,” the final track from their album Mignonette (2004). The Avetts sing in trademark ragged harmony, “We came for salvation / We came for family / We came for all that’s good / That’s how we’ll walk away.”
After the show, the band members pose for pictures with little kids and their parents, and graciously sign autographs for every last fan who approaches them—and there are plenty.
Next up on the same stage are Merlefest’s resident speed demons, The Krüger Brothers, picking through a lightning-fast, ultra-syncopated version of folk standard “I Know You Rider.” The brothers’ chops are mind-blowing to say the least.
The sun warms the earth. It’s the best weather of the weekend, and the crowd—filled with bluegrass aficionados of all ages and backgrounds—is in a fine mood. To the right of the stage, sure-handed artists work meticulously on a giant sand sculpture of bearded musicians jamming away.
“I like songs I can relate to,” says guitarist Uwe Krüger, between songs. “Songs about traveling, girls, food… this sure ain’t no worksong, heh!” The trio breaks into a furious rendition of the Stanley Brothers classic, “Pig in a Pen.”
Over at the Watson Stage, it’s a similar scene, as veteran picker Ricky Skaggs and his band Kentucky Thunder tear through an instrumental closely resembling “Foggy Mountain Breakdown.” Afterward, he introduces the band, then tells a story about his mother—“a good Christian woman who’d slap the taste out of your mouth if you talked back to her.” Skaggs dedicates a pretty gospel ballad to her, mandolin plucking sweet and lonesome in the afternoon air, smell of fresh popped corn floating on the breeze from the nearby concession stand.
Before playing Bill Monroe’s “Uncle Penn,” Skaggs says, “This is the Bluegrass National Anthem… If you don’t know it, you don’t know jack!” He follows with the same standard (“Pig in a Pen”) the Krügers just ran down, and it’s damn near impossible to say whose version is better. I’m leaning Skaggs, just barely. Perhaps they’ll get to shoot it out later at the annual Midnight Jam.
Skaggs is called for an encore, and chooses “Shady Grove.” The harmonies are spot-on and each musician onstage busts solos that sound like someone trying desperately to lasso a runaway locomotive.
Suddenly eager for a break in the action, I head indoors to view a screening of Bluegrass Journey, a documentary on the bluegrass-festival scene. Filmmakers Ruth Oxenberg and Rob Schumer, spent several years interviewing fans and artists alike, painting a colorful portrait that gets at the heart of this unique musical subculture, in which there’s very little separation between audience and performer.
The film discusses the genre from Bill Monroe all the way to present-day fusion styles that incorporate jazz, world, rock ’n’ roll and more. Songwriter Tim O’Brien points out the similarities between Chuck Berry and Monroe’s styles and the important ways blues, country and folk have influenced each other.
Bluegrass Journey also features segments on festival cooking, the effect of weather on festivals, kids bluegrass camps, the Bluegrass Awards and plenty of performance footage from folks like Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Rhonda Vincent, Peter Rowan, Nickel Creek, Tim O’Brien, Old Crow Medicine Show and Tony Rice.
Most importantly, the film captures the bluegrass festival—and bluegrass itself—as the multi-generational family affair that it is.
Afterward, directors Oxenberg and Schumer take questions on their film, which is now available on DVD. Bluegrass Journey—painstakingly edited down to 86 minutes from 142 hours of footage—was driven by their passion for the subject, they say.
Just before dinner Pat Flynn & Friends warm it up on the cabin stage with a cover of The Band’s “Shape I’m In.” Dusk settles in as they wrap up their set. Then, one of the festivals most-anticipated acts, legendary group The Chieftains, takes the stage. Their breezy brand of traditional Irish folk and dance music has the crowd up-and-jumpin’ while doubling as a musical history lesson, drawing a line straight back to bluegrass’s Scotch Irish roots.
Eighty-one-year-old Earl Scruggs joins The Chieftains for a rousing, handclapping “Sally Gooden.” The parade of bluegrass legends continues as Ricky Skaggs joins the band. “These fellas talk funny,” he jibes. “They ain’t from around here. But let’s adopt ’em.”
Traditional Irish dancers join the fray; it’s starting to look like a party onstage. As the makeshift ensemble hits its stride the festival is in full swing. Heavenly beautiful harp and flute solos abound and a few nearby couples start dancing a jig. The band seamlessly transitions from traditional Celtic sounds to straight-up Kentucky Bluegrass and Scruggs kicks into high gear. The music fades and sit-in dobro wizard Jerry Douglas enters the spotlight, soloing for a few courses before the musicians bust an Irish stomp. Before long, the music shifts into greasy bluegrass-a-billy. Again and again, The Chieftains and their guests flip lightning fast between sounds and styles, building toward a grand finale featuring special guests Alison Moorer, Béla Fleck, Scruggs, Skaggs and Douglas.
Between acts, Merlefest Patriarch Doc Watson tells us about his son Merle—the festival’s namesake—who was killed in a tragic tractor accident in 1985. “He loved good music,” says Watson. “And he loved people.” Doc follows with a tribute that has become a Merlefest tradition—an altered version of “Will The Circle Be Unbroken” with a few special lines added in, like, “When God’s heavenly choir sings, he’ll have Merle pickin’ lead.” It’s a touching song to begin with, and with Merle’s mother Rosa Lee Watson sitting sidestage it’s hard to keep your eyes dry. The reverence and respect for Merle and the Watson family is what sets this event apart, making it more than just a bluegrass festival.
Sara and Sean Watkins from Nickel Creek and Tania Elizabeth and Scott Senor from The Duhks look on as Doc strums his guitar and the crowd’s heartstrings. They’re the next generation, just starting to make their mark, in comparison. With any luck, they’ll be gracing the stage in their later years, just like Watson.
The next set, on the cabin stage, features a brother/sister duet from Tim and Molly O’Brien. Their voices blend sweetly and before long, Duhks drummer Senor joins them on snare and brushes. Molly wails soulful, chilling the crowd with her and Tim’s country/folk blend.
A few hours later, folks are filing in for the annual Midnight Jam, a fan-and-performer-favorite tradition that puts some of the festival’s best together in random combinations, playing off-the-cuff instrumentals, standards and off-beat covers as if sitting around in the living room at some after-hours house party where a bunch of amazing musicians show up.
After I maneuver behind the curtain at the back of the stage, I finally make my way to the backstage door. Sean and Sara Watkins jam in a back hallway, while in the next room Peter Rowan tunes up his git-fiddle, Jim Lauderdale leads a jam, and Chris Thile and young apprentice Josh Pinkham trade mandolin chops.
Back onstage a 10-year-old girl I’ve never seen before is fiddlin’ up a storm. Even playing so well at such a young age is a feat, but beyond that, knowing when to lead and when to follow, having the courage to play to a jam-packed theatre with some of bluegrass’s best—that is impressive.
After a few other acts take their turn, Molly O’Brien follows with a bluesy “Memphis Minnie Medley.” After three hours of pickin’, the evening’s setup man, songwriter Darrell Scott plays a few dobro-heavy tunes and then the typical set-closer brings the jam home as all the musicians pile onstage for “Will The Circle Be Unbroken.” Scott takes the lead vocals with jam hosts the Kruger Brothers plucking strong behind him. It’s an early-morning dose of Sunday mornin’ religion. Like they did the year before, all the players fall into groups according to instrument, and then take turns soloing by section. Everyone in the auditorium is singing their hearts out. Sara Watkins and Duhks banjo player Leonard Podolak dance along for a minute.
After the show, in a hopeful but rather forced attempt to recreate the magic of the previous year’s Midnight Jam (featuring Gillian Welch and David Rawlings, John Paul Jones, Nickel Creek, Byron House and more), all the musicians huddle up in the dark outside on a loading dock adjacent to the building. Sara Watkins and Thile valiantly slide into the gorgeous “Tennessee Waltz,” trying to spark up a little magic, but it’s just not meant to be. Halfway through the song, one of the festival staff throws open the dock’s garage door, spilling bright light on everyone and killing the mood. The musicians decide to soldier on, but within seconds fate interrupts again when Watkins’ cell phone starts ringing. She cracks up as she pulls it out of her pocket and switches it off. The jammers finish the tune haphazardly with a smile and a shrug, somewhat defeated, but still in good spirits. The phenomenon of last year’s Midnight Jam was not to be repeated, but it didn’t seem to ruin anyone’s night. Jim Lauderdale put it best—“I’m not havin’ a good time, I’m havin’ a great time!”