Merlefest: Bitten By The Bluegrass Bug


Chris Thile joins James Leva and John Doyle at the Merlefest Creek stage.

It’s been a little over a week since the end of the 25th annual Merlefest in Wilkesboro, NC, and the blogs and photos of this year’s festival are now being posted online. Since I was not there, this is not one of them, but it made me realize that this marks ten years since my first music festival at Merlefest 2002. I was completely absorbed by the cascade of music from the stages, but it was the community that I saw around the campfire jams that made me want to learn the music at a deeper level. With ten years hindsight, here’s what I remember from those fateful days when American roots music became a driving force in my life.

Memories of Merlefest 15

One of the first bands I came across that Merlefest was the Krüger Brothers, Jens on banjo, Uwe on guitar and vocals, and their bassist Joel Landsberg. I remember being right up close to the stage and hearing the power of the banjo as it rattled off notes like a machine. Their medley of classic television theme songs was hilarious, but they didn’t rely on gimmicks and gave serious treatment to Dylan’s “Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright” among other songs. Tim O’Brien was a highlight performance on the first night of the festival. He was one of the few performers I was a little familiar with, and his band The Crossing included John Doyle, Karan Casey and John Williams, who I knew form their work with the Irish band Solas.

I got to see John Doyle again at the Creek Stage, as he played rhythm behind fiddler James Leva, who I have since met several times. Nickel Creek was still together then, and Chris Thile stopped by to jam a few on stage with Leva and Doyle. Although I was a bluegrass newbie, the name Tony Rice was known to me, and was often mentioned with reverence by others at the festival. My first chance to see the legend in action was when he sat in with the Nickel Creek on their set. Another great memory was walking near the main stage when I got hit by “The Voice” of John Cowan. It’s a special gift to be able to stop someone in their tracks by the power of your singing, and Cowan has it.


My friend Resophonic Rael at the “Sewerfest” campground.

In Doc Watson‘s main stage sets I saw a line of musicians eager to join the revered guitar master. Then there was a double dose of Gillian Welch, which along with “O’Brother Where Art Thou” had been my gateway into American string music. One of my favorite moments was the first time I heard Sam Bush back at camp, listening to the live broadcast of the main stage on the local radio. By the time he sang “Howlin’ At The Moon” and hoots erupted across the campsite, my conversion to a bluegrass fan was complete.

The music was enthralling, but my lasting memory of my first festival was the community around the campfire jam. Being so close that you could almost touch the music, seeing how the musicians who may have only just met each other seemed to draw from a common pool of music with ease, seeing the faces of the crowd while they enjoyed the music and outdoors together. That is what really compelled me to learn an instrument and become a part of this community of traditions.

How about you? Is there a moment that you can pinpoint when music or art had altered the course of your life? Was it momentary inspiration or a life-defining moment? I’d love to hear your “eureka” stories in the comments.

About Mike Ward

Connecting the digital to the local - website management, social media and event promotion.
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1 Response to Merlefest: Bitten By The Bluegrass Bug

  1. Betsy Watts says:

    I live in NC and my daddy sang a song with the lyrics “Raleigh train’s a comin’ and I don’t want to go. Another verse was Got no Sunday breeches and I don’t want to go.The tune was the same as Christmas Time’s a Comin. We don’t know if this is actually a song, or if Daddy just made up the lyrics! Have you ever heard of it? He sang it to all the grandchildren in the swing on the front porch, and his oldest grandchild (now 50) wants to learn all the words.


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