Merlefest

The Dusters just got back from Merlefest, perhaps the most plentiful weekend long display of the melting pot that is American roots music. The amount of performers is staggering, from local string bands to arena size national acts. The number of people is also staggering, which means great exposure (and lucrative fund-raising for the College, definitely a good thing) but also a chaotic festival experience from a band’s perspective (at least a band of our size). But what else could you expect with Lyle Lovett, Robert Plant, Zac Brown, Randy Travis, the Doobie Brothers and exactly 92 other acts on the bill? I’m not sure. Inevitably, a festival is designed to cater to its biggest performers (and the big crowds that follow), so the smaller acts sacrifice things like more personal hospitality for a set in front of the masses. We all play the festival with hopes of someday reaching that top billing, but for now most of us are still paying our dues.

Merlefest is a mega-festival with corporate sponsorship, almost identical in scale to Bonnaroo (76,000 people, $225-250 tix at Merle; 80,000 people, $210-250 tix at Bonnaroo). While the biggest acts definitely have ‘popular music’ credentials (Led Zepplin is one of the baddest rock bands ever), the majority of the lineup is roots music (blues, gospel, bluegrass, folk, etc), and the roots reputation of the festival is unmistakable. The only real common thread is quality, and for that the organizers deserve a lot of credit. It’s clear proof that quality music is really valuable. Very good news.

If you look on the Merlefest website, they have a very insightful description of the music, complete with a new term (new to me) that I really dig: ‘traditional plus.’ Doc described it best himself:

“When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional-plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play. Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is ‘traditional-plus’.”

It’s spot on. The traditional element is there, but the ‘plus’ stands for growth and the inclusion of other influences. It has such a positive connotation. This kind of evolution, with a nod to the past, is a defining and healthy theme in acoustic music. All the best innovators (guys like Doc Watson, David Grisman, Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, etc) earned their traditional stripes at one point, and it informs their music in the best ways. This also demonstrates that music can be part traditional, and part something else–as many parts as you want for that matter. No rules, just whatever you are “in the mood to play.” It’s up to the artist. Those are profound words from one of the all-time greats.

I was excited to be performing and shooting video at the Midnight Jam, a signature event of the festival where performers are invited to hang out, collaborate and perform in front of an eager full house of fans at the Walker Center. This is where the unique musical moments happen. Kudos to Casey Driessen for organizing the best one of these events I have ever been to. I have a bunch of great footage (some on-stage, but mostly backstage) that I am editing into a short piece for American Songwriter’s website.

The midnight jam is pure musical cross-pollination. The music (there were many unique and noteworthy collaborations) and probably most importantly the human connections are both clear evidence of musical evolution. The purists might point you elsewhere, but I was especially excited to see Sarah Jarosz and Alex Hargreaves, two of the most promising young acoustic musicians I have ever heard, play ‘Jellyfish’ with Billy Nershi of the Emitt Nershi Band/String Cheese Incident and Johnny Grubb of the Emmitt Nershi Band/formerly Railroad Earth. I have really enjoyed getting to know all four, but have never seen their worlds collide. It was a beautiful thing.

String Cheese plays some of the biggest shows (20,000 people big) on the post-Grateful Dead jamband scene. Billy is a prime example of a very successful musician with major respect for bluegrass (I toured with him for a good while, great musician and great person). Though String Cheese has obvious early bluegrass influences, they have long since transcended the genre, finding major success along the way. But Billy still loves what he does, clearly digging into the opportunity to connect with amazing young players, sharing ideas and making music. Sarah and Alex are at the beginning of seriously promising careers that are just getting rolling. They represent the best of the young acoustic scene. Their music is skilled but meaningful, and their open-minded/positive attitudes will take them far, opening doors like these, to new sounds and also connections that could be really important for them down the road. I’m not saying they are destined for jam-band fame necessarily, but it represents a very positive trend. It’s a connection of musical influences and of music scenes–it’s part of the payoff and it’s how the music moves forward, in an artistic sense and a business sense. Most of all, their tune sounded great (‘Jellyfish’ definitely never sounded like that before), and Nershi danced like it was a Cheese show in front of a full house of seated Merlefest fans at 2 AM. Amazing–it was musical evolution in action at the Midnight Jam. Video coming soon…

  6 comments for “Merlefest

  1. DREW
    May 2, 2011 at 4:07 pm

    Sara Jarosz Incident tour, brah?

  2. May 2, 2011 at 4:21 pm

    Great blog, Chris. One thing to mention about the festival is all the campground camaraderie and jamming at Merlefest. I’ve been going to Merlefest for 15 years and we have some huge jams late at night nearly every night with even some of the stage musicians coming after the shows to play with us as well. Sometimes there’s some incredible musicianship and synergy going on there, too and often many people watching and dancing around the fire. You just don’t get that in many other genres of music. All that, wrapped with the brilliant music at the festival, has made Merlefest the best four days of the year.

  3. May 5, 2011 at 7:31 am

    I was also at Merlefest last week and I would have to agree that it was the best-organised Music Festival I have ever attended, anywhere in the World. I was wearing a couple of hats.One, as a musician/songwriter/performer of Traditional Plus [to use the new term!]Two, as a Radio Presenter of Roots Music in Ireland doorstepping a few of my heroes for short interviews[ Roland White,Jerry Douglas,Keith Sewell,George Hamilton The IV, etc], and Three, as a music Fan/Listener, being stunned by performances from Lyle Lovett, Peter Rowan, Randy Travis, The Stringdusters, Bill Monroe Tribute Band, Sam Bush, The Doobie Brothers, el al …… Great food, wonderful musical Instruments, cool t-shirts, great weather, amazing friendships, well-behaved crowds, etc,etc…Merlefest,thanks, and long may you reign. Niall Toner, Teach Burren, Coolasnaughta, Myshall, Co.Carlow, Ireland.

  4. bill
    May 12, 2011 at 1:17 pm

    My first Merlefest was in 2007 when the Infamous Stringdusters, Uncle Earl, the Duhks and Crooked Still combined their talents during the ‘New Genaration Super Jam’. You can get it from FestivalLink and I can’t recommend it more. Its one off sets like that that make Merlefest totally unique. My 15 year old daughter had four new favorite bands after that performance.

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