The world lost the great Doc Watson almost two years ago. It was a solemn day for me because he was a hero at so many levels. He was my all-time favorite North Carolinian – a guy who’d made the rustic mountain side of my home state look pure and righteous and deep in the eyes of a world too quick to harbor hillbilly stereotypes. He was, in my opinion, the single greatest musician to be widely known and associated with folk music from the 60s revival through the new millennium, and that matters because Doc was a powerful ambassador, whose guitar skills, voice and wide ranging repertoire kept the music kept growing for half a century.
Doc lived a long and fulfilling life. Not so his only son Merle, a superb artist himself, who died in an accident in 1985. The tragedy robbed Doc of a loved one but also a musical partner who’d handled the driving and so much of the work. Doc had to adjust and carry on with new partners, and I’m sure it was never quite the same. The people of Wilkes County, NC weren’t about to let Merle’s memory die. They set up a small commemoration that evolved into one of the nation’s big-time festivals – a magnificent union of logistics and curatorial skills. I learned my way through bluegrass and Americana at Merlefest in the 90s and 2000s. To be invited to play there is a sign of having arrived in roots music.
This week, we mark our annual collaboration with Merlefest with a show featuring five artists who will be performing there just a day or two after their Wednesday night engagement with us. So many stories here. So little space.
In Sierra Hull I see a distillation of the wonder and potential for the much-ballyhooed youth movement in bluegrass. Not that she’s a kid anymore. She’s out of college and pursuing her career. But she was a prodigy from tiny Byrdstown, TN who became renowned before her teens with outstanding mandolin skills and a sweet, pure voice. She got signed by Rounder Records and released her debut album in 2008 when she was just 16. Now she’s a major draw on the circuit and an artist with so much more to say and try in the coming years. Earlier this year, she toured in an acoustic duo with Della Mae guitarist Courtney Hartman, which must have been superb. Much more recently she got her wisdom teeth removed. I hope this doesn’t impinge on our interview where I intend to ask about the prospects for a new album to follow up on 2011’s terrific Daybreak.
From youth to experience we’ll go as we welcome Roy Book Binder to Roots for the first time. I’m particularly excited about this because I spent quite a few hours with Roy in the 1990s. Okay it was actually with his instructional VHS tape called “Blues By The Book,” which became my Rosetta Stone for the Piedmont blues. This has always been my favorite style of solo acoustic guitar, with its ragtime bounce and intricate dance of fingers. Roy can play that and more. He was a musical partner of the great Rev. Gary Davis for years and went on to be a premiere fingerstyle artist. I’m kind of thrilled to meet him and see his famous moustache for myself.
It wouldn’t be Merlefest without some North Carolina bluegrass, so we’ve invited back Town Mountain, the exceptional band from Asheville fronted by the commanding voice of Robert Greer. Our own Jim Lauderdale says they “get down with heart, grit, soul and drive,” and indeed we’re all fans of this tradition-minded quintet. It’s pretty obvious that the progressive, evolving edges of bluegrass are well-populated places. So it’s vital to raise up every younger band that’s making bluegrass from the schools of Jimmy Martin, Flatt & Scruggs and The Stanley Brothers. The Town Mountain guys have instrumental and vocal chops all day, but they also have that intangible connectedness that lets them swing and surge as one. Their most recent album Leave The Bottle was made in Nashville with bass master Mike Bub. We’re glad they’re swinging back through town on their way to Merlefest.
Another artist steeped in the classic school joins us this week and that’s mandolinist Mike Compton. I first heard of him in the early 90s. A duo album called Climbing The Walls with guitarist David Grier really shifted my perceptions of acoustic music. It was precise but loose – back porch easy but very refined. I wore it out. Then Compton turned up a few years later as a member of the amazing Nashville Bluegrass Band, where his licks and style, very true to Bill Monroe’s approach, gave the group a rich, earthy groove. I’m not yet sure what format Mike’s going to arrange, but he could stand alone on stage and pick and I’d be happy.
Rounding out our Merlefest edition is a return visit from Nashville’s Josh Farrow. Since he took to our stage on the very popular Leon Russell night in January 2013, a lot has happened for Josh. He recorded a Daytrotter session and was named a finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, among other accolades. Plus, he got booked on Merlefest, and as we said…
We’re looking forward to this well-rounded sampler of what makes Merlefest such a rich and complete festival. Some of our team will be there flying the MCR flag and selling merch. Here’s wishing our friends there good times and fair weather. Because we know they’ve got the music end of things covered.