Drums have always been a touchy subject in the string-band world. Bill Monroe’s bands didn’t include a drummer, and for many that settles the issue: no authentic string band should have one either. Even the first wave of new-grass bands in the ‘70s didn’t use drums. But that has changed as musicians and audiences who grew up on rock’n’roll before branching out to string bands still want to hear that percussive thump on the beat. How do you add drums without destroying the character of the string-band sound? This past weekend’s MerleFest was a laboratory for the debate.
The four-day event in Wilkesboro, North Carolina put traditional bluegrass bands next to new-wave old-time bands next to country stars. The festival was founded by the legendary singer-guitarist Doc Watson in 1988 to honor his son and longtime accompanist Merle, who died in a 1985 tractor accident. Doc had always been an open-minded musician—he was playing electric guitar in a rockabilly band when he was discovered in 1960 by folklorist Ralph Rinzler, who persuaded Doc to return to the flat-pick acoustic guitar—but Doc never lost his interest in all kinds of music. He opened the festival to a wide range of performers who had connections to the string-band and folk-music traditions. Doc died in 2012, but his spirit informs the festival. This year’s edition, the 28th, featured everyone from Doc’s former acoustic-guitar partners like David Holt and Jack Lawrence to the Marshall Tucker Band and Dwight Yoakam.
The latter two acts had drummers, of course, but so did the Steep Canyon Rangers, the Grammy-winning bluegrass band best known for collaborating with Steve Martin. For their Sunday afternoon set at the Hillside Stage (one of 13 stages scattered around the campus of Wilkes Community College), the Rangers added a percussionist to their usual five-man line-up of fiddle, mandolin, banjo, acoustic guitar and acoustic bass.
Michael Ashworth sat atop his Peruvian cajon, a hollow wooden box that he slapped to produce a sound that resemble a brush hitting a tom drum. He’s not the first person to use a cajon in a string band, but he demonstrated its useful ability to blend in with the other hollow, wooden instruments on stage. He was especially effective on the band’s railroad songs, providing a clickety-clack, Johnny Cash-like momentum that allowed virtuoso fiddler Nicky Sanders to wail like a train whistle.
New-grass star Sam Bush brought drummer Chris Brown and his full drum kit to the festival Friday night. This allowed the group to extend its range to include songs by both Flatt & Scruggs (“Little Girl in Tennessee”) and Elvis Costello (“Everyday I Write the Book”), giving the former a new punch and the latter a new twang. When the band went off on jazzy tangents during the instrumental “Laps in Seven,” Brown was able to hang in there with the solos by mandolinist Bush and banjoist Scott Vestal. And when Bush sang a country song such as “Same Ol’ River,” Brown was able to dial it back and let the melody shine through.
Following Bush on the main stage Friday night was Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi Allstars, who were performing songs from their oft-overlooked 2013 album Black Roses. Cody Dickinson, of course, is known as one of the best rock drummers around for his playing on the Allstars’ own blues-rock projects. But the supple percussionist was able to shift gears and allow Lauderdale’s hillbilly lyrics to come through loud and clear in this setting. Dickinson put a powerful tick tock in Lauderdale’s catchy tune “13 Clocks.”
The David Mayfield Parade, which preceded the Steep Canyon Rangers on the Hillside stage Sunday, featured Angie Hayes as both keyboardist and drummer. She stood between the drum kit and the electric-piano stand and played both at once, adding both rhythm and theatricality to a show that was already quite theatrical. The acoustic-guitar-strumming Mayfield, the brother of Jessica Lea Mayfield, is the Stephen Colbert of rock’n’roll: His rock-star bragging and strutting is so over-the-top that it satirizes real rock egomaniacs as effectively as Colbert’s satire of Fox newscasters.
The Christian Lopez Band was one of many young acts showcased at MerleFest this year. Lopez is a good singer with strong hooks and underwhelming lyrics. He would have been promising in any context, but his drummer, Michael Silver, proved one of the most original instrumentalists of the weekend. Silver’s ability to constantly surprise the listener with unexpected lulls followed by sudden bursts of drumming without ever losing the groove was a pleasure to encounter. He’s an unorthodox percussionist, but he has far more musical personality than most drummers.
Another impressive new act was Del Barber, a solo singer-songwriter from Manitoba. Strumming a left-handed acoustic guitar, this wiry kid in a white cowboy hat proved an entertaining storyteller with a handsome, relaxed tenor and a knack for detailed imagery in his lyrics. When he sang of a Montana waitress he once met, he made the examples of her hard times and persistence so specific that she seemed more real than a dozen waitresses in more conventional songs.
The most impressive newcomer at this year’s MerleFest, though, was Blind Boy Paxton, a songster in the tradition of Lead Belly, Mance Lipscomb and Mississippi John Hurt. Not as blind as his moniker suggests nor as naïve as his overalls might imply, Paxton is a savvy revivalist of blues, ballads, jigs, vaudeville numbers and much more from the years before World War II. I saw him three times over the weekend, and he never repeated a selection from his seemingly inexhaustible supply of obscure old songs.
Many of them were hilarious novelty numbers about unfaithful lovers, cheating card players and foolish suckers, all made funnier still by his languid, tongue-in-cheek introductions. The songs themselves seemed to spool out effortlessly in his buttery tenor and he played fiddle, harmonica, banjo or acoustic guitar while tapping his feet. And when he turned serious, he could sober up the room right quick.