Merlefest 2003; An Appalachian Dream

By John Cutliffe

Many people around the world discovered Americana, bluegrass and the folk music of the US Mountains through the film O Brother Where Art Thou. Others had their awakenings, also through film, with popular tunes from Bonnie and Clyde and Deliverance. The music itself though has always had a large worldwide audience since the day Bill Monroe took his Bluegrass Boys on the road. The Irish more than most have a great love of this genre and many good Bluegrass and Americana style bands have emerged in the Irish musical landscape over the years.

Altan’s Ciaran Tourish cut his first professional teeth in the fiery Pyros from Donegal, a band who took Irish traditional music and Bluegrass and married them into a frenzied night of mayhem. Kevin Doherty of 4 Men and a Dog was also a member of that band and you can hear the influence of American folk and country carry through their later recordings. More recently Altan and Dolly Parton have appeared on each other’s albums and the Chieftain’s Down the Old Plank Road is featured heavily on US country radio.

Nowadays there is a greater camaraderie between the American exponents of this music and their Irish and Scottish counterparts. You only have to look at programs like The Transatlantic Sessions with Scotland’s Ally Bain and Ohio native Jerry Douglas who between them bring together, not some of the best but all of the best from the two tightly linked traditions in a Lodge in Scotland. There they make arguably the best musical television of its kind in the world.

It isn’t surprising then that Dr Jim Barrow the managing director of Merlefest told me last weekend that he wants to see a much bigger Irish representation at Merlefest in coming years. “We have wanted to bring the Chieftains here for years, but they aren’t easy to get” This coming from the man leading the team who this year alone brought Leahy, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Del McCoury, Ricky Skaggs, Bela Fleck and Emmylou Harris together on the same bill. There are 15 stages there and over 4 days it’s easy to catch new and well known acts on various stages all over the site. “We would love to bring The Chieftains and Altan here together and give one of the next few years a very Irish feel” I can easily see Jerry and Sam hopping on stage with either of those bands.

This year the Celtic stamp came from Leahy whose glitzy Las Vegas style set seemed out of place in this arena where a lot of the memorable moments come from impromptu jams. The Merlefest audience lapped it all up though and they had more than a couple standing ovations.

There are many such festivals in the USA but Merlefest is fast becoming the biggest of them all. In recent years media attention has reached fever pitch and since Merlefest 2002 glossy magazines in Japan and the UK have run major features, USA today and Rolling Stone have run web coverage and newspapers, television and radio from all over the world have converged on this small North Carolina city. A wonderful tribute to Merle Watson and his father Doc. The festival was born out of a few friends and family wanting to remember Merle who died in a farming accident in 1985.

Now in its 16th year the festival reached its this milestone in style. Over the weekend I witnessed wonderful performances from Doc Watson, Jerry Douglas, Darrell Scott, Donna the Buffalo among others. I watched kids laugh and sing at the Little Pickers stage. I listened to a true veteran in this business George Hamilton IV lead me through a history of country music taking it from the hills of Ireland and Scotland to his own native Blue Ridge. I spoke to Eustace Conway the subject of an incredible new book and an entirely separate article called The Last American Man which is soon to be a film by Warner Brothers and I ate alligator in the sun. Where else but Merlefest?

It is also incredible to think what a family event this really is. Set on the grounds of the local Wilkes community college there is no alcohol sold on the site or even cigarettes. This would seem unthinkable at any such event in Europe but 77,000 men, women and children flock every year to a safe, well run feast of culture. No one misses the beer it seems and those that do have a few late at night while picking tunes at the many campsites near the festival grounds. The festival creates a huge boost to the local economy and contributes much needed real resources to the local college where it all takes place.

Even the movie stars are getting into Merlefest. I spoke to Anna Chancellor star of the recent hit movie “What a Girl Wants” who was there to cover the event for the UK’s Independent newspaper.

“We are so lucky to be here” she said as we stood on the photographer’s platform just 5 feet away from Emmylou Harris who was performing with her all star band. Anna is a genuine fan of the music and not just there to boost her career or to make fun of this Hillbilly music. Later as Doc Watson brought the three days of amazing music to a close she was very moved and frustrated. “I could listen to Doc Watson all night. I don’t want it to be over so soon”

And so another year, my third in a row came to a close and as we drove south through the rolling Carolina hills I knew I would be back next year. Like my own Donegal there’s something intangible and magical that draws me back. You could do a lot worse that to plan a trip to Merelfest 2004.


 © 2009