Voices from Merlefest Past

Del McCoury (photo by Will Sparlin, courtesy of Merlefest)

It’s raining here in  central Virginia and I’m waiting to see if the weather deities are going to smile on the Rockbridge old time festival over in Buena Vista, just off Interstate 81 near Lexington. The plan is to go over Thursday (Sept. 8), set up camp and start playing. I spend most of my playing time sitting by myself and right now I’m working on a song about my father, whose mind is being subdued by dementia. It’s called “In My Father’s House” and I am  liking it a great deal even though the subject matter is almost unspeakably sad.

Rockbridge is a fairly small festival. I went for the first time last year and had a terrific time. There’s a stream running down one side of the campground, which is where I staked my temporary claim, along with a large unoccupied brick house – a mansion of sorts — at the far end. In the late afternoons it looked as if a light had come on  in a second-story room; it was just the sun reflecting in the window panes but the prospect of having a few ghosts in the neighborhood  added an additional glow to the cocktail hour. It was a relatively quiet festival so I got lots more sleep there than at Clifftop or Mt. Airy.  There was also a gang of feral cats hanging around. My pal Kim came the last day of the festival and fixed a dinner of beef liver cooked in sherry, some of which became cat food (not Kim’s fault; the organ in question had lost some of its integrity in the freezer, though the sherry was fine through and through). I figure those cats are looking for us this year.

We’ll see. A change of scene would be nice. I’ve spent the last two weeks sawing and splitting trees felled by Hurricane Irene. We now have enough firewood to roast a mastodon, though of course no mastodon. But there is the promise of plenty of fireside picking when the cold weather comes.

Meantime, I just came across an essay I wrote after the most recent Merlefest that was never widely circulated. I interviewed several notable musicians of the roots or close to roots type, including Peter Rowan, Del McCoury, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, the Kruger Brothers and Rory Block. These were, for the most part, short interviews. We mainly talked about musical influences and who they thought young people should listen to today if they’re interested in learning about roots/Americana/ etc. music.

To no surprise, Bill Monroe’s name came up often, and Jerry Douglas rang the bell for Riley Puckett and Jimi Hendrix. Peter Rowan spoke of his admiration for aboriginal music from Australia and even put in a good word for Mick Jagger’s younger brother, who has been crooning in the shadows for several decades. There were harsher words when the subject turned to attempts to cut funding to NPR and PBS, while Jens Kruger suggested a novel cure for Attention Deficit Disorder.

“Of course they should listen to Bach and Beethoven,” said Peter Rowan, perhaps best known for writing the stoner anthem “Panama Red” and his collaboration with the late Jerry Garcia in Old and In the Way. Rowan, who played with Monroe from 1965 to 1967, says Monroe and blues singer Robert Johnson were crucial in creating a sound often lost in a world choking on aural cabbage.

 “There’s too much music available,” he said as he chomped a banana in the artist’s lounge. I assumed he meant that there’s too much lame music, thanks largely to technology that makes recording and internet distribution relatively cheap. Lost in the thicket of MySpace,  YouTube and Facebook (plus commercial radio) are traditions he believes deserve a better hearing, including “black church music, prison songs” and “aboriginal music” from Australia, which he characterized as “three chord” tunes that are an important element in the indigenous peoples’ civil rights movement. Rowan, who had recently returned from Australia, said that crusade “has yet to have its Martin Luther King moment,” making the music all the more crucial for maintaining momentum.

Rowan, a rye old dog (by some estimations), played a lot at Merlefest and remains a spirited performer. He casts something of a critical eye on would-be peers, dismissing a singer whose blues performance was playing on a television monitor. When asked for a contemporary artist he likes, Rowan suggested  Chris Jagger – “Mick’s brother.”

One Rowan gig included several former members of Monroe’s ever-changing lineup, including Grammy winning bluegrasser Del McCoury, who played with Monroe in 1963. McCoury, known for his piercing voice and gray pompadour, cited Monroe and “the Baptist hymnal” as wellsprings of roots music; Monroe’s picking style, he said, has yet to be topped.

“You can’t beat the innovator,” he said as we lounged around the press tent one afternoon. McCoury wore a sports jacket and slacks and had a very warm bearing about him. He spoke enthusiastically about his recently released CD with the Preservation Hall Jazz Band. The recordings had gone very well, he said, adding there was something of a natural fit between his band and the legendary jazz act. He was looking forward to his upcoming tour to support the CD, and happy to be at Merlefest, which he said was a far cry from early music festivals where he got his start.

For one thing, he said, contemporary sound systems are gigantic by comparison.   “When we were starting out,” he cackled, “our PA systems were so small you could carry the speakers under one arm and put the microphones in your pocket.” At Merlefest, the speakers had to be trucked in and could definitely rattle you. The day previous I had been in my camp, a good five minute walk from the stage, when Del and his boys launched into a typically high-spirited set. The roar was nearly enough to shake a fresh head on my clandestine beer (drinking is officially verboten on festival grounds).

Audiences and cash flow are also magnitudes larger. He recalled the first multi-day bluegrass festival, held in Fincastle, Virginia in 1965, as a microscopic event compared to Merlefest, whose four-day attendance this year was 80,000. All told the yearly festival has raised $8 million for Wilkes Community College since 1988.

One performer who didn’t cite Monroe as a major influence was  Rory Block, a willowy blues singer who grew up in Manhattan. She’s a solid guitar player who augments her picking by mercilessly stomping the stage with her highly  percussive feet. After a set on the smaller Cabin Stage she sang the praises of the Rev. Gary Davis, Son House, Memphis Minnie and Bessie Smith.  “They’re the ones I listened to when I was growing up,” she said, and it was clear she had listened closely.

Merlefest is also where I met Tara Nevins,  who fronts Donna the Buffalo and also has a vibrant solo career.Tara plays fiddle, guitar, accordion and sometimes wears a washboard (or something that looks like a washboard). She’s also a good singer. She cited as influences several old-time musicians who are far below most radar screens, many of which she had heard through the years at the Mt. Airy old time/bluegrass festival. For Tara, the festival is an annual pilgrimage. “I never book gigs during Mt. Airy,” she said, adding that many of the players she has heard there are local, unknown and brilliant.

Nashville mainstay Sam Bush stopped by the press tent briefly. He praised Doc Watson, Chet Atkins, Les Paul and Eric Clapton as influences – interestingly enough, all are guitar players while Bush is best known for his mandolin work, with solid chops on fiddle as well. He joined a chorus of several players who denounced efforts to cut funding to arts and music education, National Public Radio and the Public Broadcasting System. The most interesting take on the dangers associated with de-funding came from Jens Kruger of the Kruger Brothers, who  insisted that keeping music in the schools will pay significant medical benefits.

“In our schools,” he said of growing up in Europe, “we sang a song together every morning,” which he says focused minds and created a sense of community. When morning singing was cancelled, he continued, grades went down but rose again when the practice resumed. If American schools made group singing a part of their morning routine, he concluded,  it “would eliminate ADD” – an assertion that might not be music to the ears of the pharmaceutical industry. So watch your back, Jens.

Dobro master Jerry Douglas, a giant presence at Merlefest, cited Flatt and Scruggs as perhaps his most important influence, though he put in a strong word for Riley Puckett.  He also said he had recently discovered the joys of singing publicly. Douglas, now touring in support of Alison Krauss and Union Station’s new “Paper Airplane” CD, said he had launched his singing career the previous week during a Carnegie Hall gig. “I’m 55,” he smiled. “I figured it was time.”

I asked if he had he sung a gentle, heartfelt number.  

“No. I did a murder ballad — Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Hey Joe.’” He did a repeat performance at Merlefest that went over quite well, even without setting his Dobro afire.

So it went at Merlefest, whose large crowds are a reminder that roots music has developed a solid audience base – perhaps too solid for some people. The crowd is large, the main stage can be very loud and some of the acts, such as country crooner Randy Travis, seem a bit too slick (and sometimes snoozeworthy) for prolonged listening.

But then there was Doc Watson playing and singing hymns on a small stage Sunday morning. Nearly 90, his voice sometimes wavered though it was, for the most part, warm and reassuring. He talked about ‘going home’  with a mix of weariness and assurance, apparently believing the life he has lived will pay benefits beyond the grave. After hearing him I headed back to Virginia.

Which is where I am now, waiting for the rain to stop. There’s thunder in the distance but hope in the forecast. There’s also late word of perhaps meeting up with the luscious and always celestial Angel Band between now and then.  Life has been far worse.

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About Dave Shiflett

Dave Shiflett is a writer -- former critic for Bloomberg News and a contributor to The Wall Street Journal, The Washington Post and other publications -- and author of several books, including one with Donald Trump ("The America We Deserve"). He also writes and performs music and has released four CDs -- "Time Goes Rushing By" (Floor Creak); "Songs for Aging Cynics" (The Karma Farmers); "Afternoon Lamentations" (Dave Shiflett and Friends) and "From the First Time" (Dave Shiflett and Friends).
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