|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
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.