Every year with the advent of spring, flowers blossoming and trees waking up and getting dressed with new leaves, Merlefest celebrates not only great roots music, but also the awakening of the soul of the land. The music festival perches between the foothills of the Appalachian Mountains and the rolling rural farms of the Piedmont of North Carolina. Wilkesboro is the perfect setting for music born of the mountains, of farms, of rivers, and of life connected to the land—connected to what is real.
Sometimes music, theology, philosophy, and just plain and simple lifestyle can become so complex, highbrow, and self-generating that it is all too easy to become, as one preacher once put it, “so heavenly minded that we’re no earthly good.” For all of human history, art has been connected to natural landscape, and technology has always complicated that relationship. With all of the illusions technology makes possible, it can make us forgetful of the essence of living.
It’s easy to forget and start behaving as if technology can guard us against the normal cycles of life and death, removing us from the challenges of the natural arrangements that are so evident in the land. Sometimes music can reflect a culture's intended shelter from nature, but at other times—other glorious times!—music doesn’t hide, but embraces the fullness of the way of things. Merlefest is about remembering. It’s more than just embracing the past; it’s remembering to be present in the moment and to see each moment for what it really is with no illusions. It’s absolutely appropriate, then, that every year at the end of April, Merlefest features real musicians playing real instruments on the edge of the woods in a wide open space and completely vulnerable to whatever weather the heavens offer. That’s real life.
Last year, the heavens offered rain and lots of it on Saturday. My 11 year-old daughter was with me. We had a great time surveying the various tents, stages, and local culinary offerings, but the mud became an unavoidable reality that came with the spring rains. As we settled in at the Watson stage, my daughter loved, for example, Sam Bush’s show, but she was less than thrilled that we were no longer dodging the rain…and the cool air…and the breeze. After we left and got back to our car we were both soaked and cold. I was concerned that she was miserable and wouldn’t go back with me on Sunday. But, I glanced at her as I started the car and almost sobbed when I saw the huge grin on her face. She had had a great time—so much so that on the way home she texted a friend to invite her to join us on Sunday. The next day, my daughter and her friend explored the whole place, slogging through the mud and soaking up the fresh sunshine. This time, when I started the car and asked the girls what they thought, they said, not only that they had a good time, but my daughter’s friend said, “I didn’t know any of the singers, but I loved how natural everything was. That music just felt more natural.”
This year’s Merlefest will feature all kinds of musical styles and forms. Many will recognize artists like James Taylor, Zac Brown Band, Del McCoury, the Avett Brothers, and Marty Stuart. The lineup includes some of the most cutting edge folk, roots, alt country, and bluegrass artists like Sarah Jarosz, Tift Merritt, Scythian, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sierra Hull, Mandolin Orange, Chatam County Line, and Bryan Sutton, among others. Of course, the festival will also feature seasoned veterans of Merlefest like Peter Rowan, T. Michael Coleman, Sam Bush, Jim Avett, Jim Lauderdale, the Kruger Brothers, Jerry Douglas, and David Holt. The lineup at Merlefest is an intentional collection of legends, emerging artists, and those at the peak of their notoriety. It’s how we remember.
The music of Merlefest is as real as the rain and the sunshine. It nestles in the cleft in the woods around Wilkes Community College with an honesty that’s all-too rare. The ghosts of Doc and Merle Watson fill the valley like the signature morning mists. They live on most profoundly in the renewing of an unapologetically unpretentious tradition that truly is unlike any other, a tradition that keeps moving forward, present in new moments set upon the land that birthed it. Merlefest is about remembering the past, living in the present, and keeping it real in the future.
The 2017 Merlefest will take place at Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, April 27-30.