Our lives are full of turning points and memories, and our lives in music provide some of the strongest and sweetest.
It was a cool Appalachian evening in the early 1990s. I’d made the trek from my home in Washington DC to a community college I’d never heard of in North Wilkesboro, NC. I’d set up the car camp and figured out the shuttle and the tickets, and there I was approaching the main stage, action already in progress. The band on stage was the rousing Rankin Family, a Celtic-influenced family band from Nova Scotia. The air pulsed with fiddle and accordion. Uplights from behind the main stage flooded the trees on the thrusting hillside at the edge of the meadow. And I thought I’d arrived at the pearly gates. My skin was warm and tingling, and I swelled with joy and purpose. Nothing had ever felt so real or promising. And as the music flowed that night and the three days thereafter and for all those spring days in the years since, shared with family members, dear friends, fellow travelers, professional colleagues and amazing musicians, Merlefest become my muse and my PhD in roots music. I’ve not been able to go every year like I did for my first ten, but it remains a touchstone for me and many others – one of the finest events in the world.
So I’m personally excited and indeed we’re all proud that this week’s Roots is presented in partnership with Merlefest, which will kick off again on April 25, the day after our show. All of our guest artists this week will roll across the mountains to plunge into the multi-stage mayhem to pick a few for Merle. And just to make sure you’re up on this, Merle, the namesake of the festival, was the son of our hero Doc Watson. This will be the fist Merlefest ever without Doc, who died as an icon of American music after 89 remarkable years of enlightening our world. This potent symbolism is matched with a lineup for this week’s show that is off the charts.
I have to start with Peter Rowan. Larger than life, with a lusty, dusty shamanistic voice, Rowan belongs in the pantheon of bluegrass gods. Like the founding fathers, he grasps the ancient folk origins of the music, but like the 1960s and 70s seeker that he is, he paves a way forward for old-time music that’s wider, smoother and more scenic than others. He could write and sing with Bill Monroe and then sound equally at home collaborating with John Hartford and Jerry Garcia. Rowan’s Old & In The Way album of 1975 is probably the disc I’ve heard cited most often from others as their bluegrass epiphany album. The career is vast, but the very latest move is a new album on Compass Records that continues Rowan’s adventures in traditional bluegrass. I truly can’t wait to interview and hear him again.
Then, at the risk of swooning, there’s Della Mae. Before their first appearance at Roots, I described my first experience with these five delightful and talented women – when they made me cry while doing a bit of video work as they recorded their Rounder Records debut album a year ago. Now that album is poised for release in the next couple of weeks, and holy smoke it is fantastic. The songs and moods reflect everything I ever loved at Merlefest rolled in one – some clawhammer banjo/fiddle-driven old-time, some punchy ‘grass, some pulsing nouveau folk pop. I dearly hope this album lifts this tight and delightful band into the stratosphere. They are among America’s best musical finds right now.
This alone would make for a grand and epic show, but it gets better. The Waybacks are a band meant to play Music City Roots, with an eclectic outlook and a vision that spans from Nashville to their base of San Francisco. Music City native James Nash is the outstanding guitarist and lead vocalist. Warren Hood – son of the late great Champ – is a dazzling fiddler who can jazz it like Grappelli or grass it like Vassar Clements. We’re also welcoming Pokey LaFarge, that smooth cat from St. Louis who’s carved out his own place in Americana with throwback tastes and a modern sensibility. Jack White’s Third Man Records helped him out with a single and then moved on to a new full-length album, which is coming this summer.
And no tribute to Merlefest would be complete without the most basic of all roots musical formats – a folk singer with a guitar. And our designated front porch troubadour is Jim Avett, farmer and musician from Concord, NC. He won us over on his first visit a couple years ago, and in the time since, he’s found a cult following who appreciate him as much as they do his super-successful sons.
Buy your tickets early for this one. It’s going to be packed, with people and expectations for a great Merlefest to come.