MerleFest: Enough musical fetishes to satisfy every taste

When the Mando Mania round robin landed on class clown Tim O’Brien, he asked for a show of hands from audience members who play the mandolin.  Then he took a picture of the handful of raised hands and quipped through a grin about how easy it is to play the mandolin. “That’s why there’s so many of us,” he jested. “You can even play it while driving a car.”

Sam Bush, Sarah Jarosz and Jesse Brock at Mando Mania

Sam Bush, Sarah Jarosz and Jesse Brock at Mando Mania.

It was about then that my mind began to compare the four-day MerleFest music festival to a musical wet dream. For someone like me who can’t sing or play an instrument, I’m forced to obtain musical orgasms from the dreamlike state of listening to the masters.

Mando Mania fits that bill. It has become a must-see act. This was my third MerleFest tryst and third Mando Mania. Mando Mania features six accomplished – and some world-renowned – mandolin pickers. O’Brien and Sam Bush were featured this year, as was host Tony Williamson. Rounding out the stage were relative newcomers Jesse Brock, Nick Keen and 19-year-old Sarah Jarosz, who nearly stole the show with her quick fingers and soulful southern vocals on “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” For acoustic lovers, it just doesn’t get any better than this. (The New York Times profiles Jarosz in today’s paper.)

The Waybacks perform on the Americana stage with guest Jens Kruger of The Kruger Brothers on banjo.

The Waybacks perform on the Americana stage with guest Jens Kruger of The Kruger Brothers on banjo.

Still, there are two reasons why my orgasmic comparison is probably inappropriate – if not inaccurate. First, MerleFest is a family affair. No tobacco or alcohol are allowed on the Wilkes Community College campus that hosts the festival. You won’t find couples fornicating in the North Carolina bushes, their ecstasy enhanced by ecstasy. Second, I’m sure I was in the minority of those with no musical ability. Pickers come from around the world to take workshops from the masters throughout the weekend. So the analogy is only appropriate to me and maybe a handful of others.

Still, inappropriate or not, MerleFest can satisfy whatever musical fetish you may have, from the lonesome wail of Peter Rowan’s “Come Back to Old Santa Fe,” to the honky-tonk cowboy of Jim Lauderdale’s “Turned to Stone,” to the John Cowan Band’s spiritual “Walk Right In,” to the newgrass of Tony Rice and Sam Bush, to the crisp a cappella of the Wailin’ Jennys on “Trail of the Lonesome Pine,” to the soul of Veronika Jackson, to the high-energy instrumental of the Emmitt-Nershi Band’s  “Bone Creek,” to the hard rock disco of the Doobie Brothers. (OK, so MerleFest is not so stodgy that Rowan and Rice couldn’t open their set with “Panama Red” or a band called the Doobie Brothers can’t be a headliner act.)

Watch a video of The John Cowan Band performing “Carla’s Got a New Tattoo” on the Hillside stage.

Garr Wharry and Theresa Pfeifer take a moment to pose for a picture at MerleFest 2011

Garr Wharry and Theresa Pfeifer take a moment to pose for a picture at MerleFest 2011.

MerleFest has so many high-quality acts that any number of them would cover the cost of admission for the day or even the weekend. Daughter Theresa, our friend Garr Wharry, I and a crowd of other mandolin lovers certainly got our money’s worth from Mando Mania. The Hillside Album Hour with The Waybacks, Joan Osborne and the Wailin’ Jennys would have covered the cost of admission, too. As would have Robert Plant and the Band of Joy. And the Emmitt-Nershi Band, The Tony Rice Unit, and the Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien’s bands.

The day after MerleFest 2011 came to a close, the Los Angeles Times ran a story on promoters cutting ticket prices and fees and touring two top-tier acts together to appease a public who have revolted against obscene prices and a lack of musical value. Comparatively, MerleFest is a steal. I bought the three-day MerleFest pass, which cost $135. For that, I saw 11 full acts and numerous partial acts as we strolled between venues. If we just count the full acts, that’s $12.27 a show. Get off on that.

MerleFest is a tribute to the late guitar virtuoso Merle Watson and features 13 stages and tents. With acts beginning as early as 9 a.m. and sometimes continuing until way after midnight over four days, there is much to see – and much to miss.

Doc Watson, patriarch of mountain guitar and MerleFest

Doc Watson, patriarch of mountain guitar and MerleFest, rides a golf cart on his way to play another set.

As is common with music festivals, Jarosz and her band performed at other MerleFest stages and with other acts over the weekend. We caught her again briefly later that Saturday afternoon when Theresa and I took a shade break on the side of the tree-lined roadway adjacent to the sun-soaked Americana stage as Jarosz feverishly picked for the crowd. It was then that I caught a quick close-up picture of Doc Watson, the festival’s patriarch and Merle’s dad, as they whisked him by in a golf cart. Bush, O’Brien and many others, of course, also played with their own bands and sat in with other acts over the course of the weekend.

One of the highlights for virtually any MerleFest groupie is The Waybacks’ Hillside Album Hour. I know that because Theresa, Garr and I set up our chairs on the hillside two hours before the performance and it was already packed. By the time The Waybacks and guests Osborne and the Wailin’ Jennys took the stage, there was barely room to walk among the bodies.

This was the 24-year-old festival’s fourth Album Hour. Previously, The Waybacks covered Led Zeppelin, the Rolling Stones and The Beatles. This year, in honor of the royal wedding, the announcer informed us, we were going American. The cover: The Allman BrothersEat a Peach album.

They killed it. Osborne earned a standing ovation from a visually aroused crowd for “One Way Out.” Except for a problem with James Nash’s microphone, his and Warren Hood’s mandolin and fiddle interpretation of Duane Allman and Dicky Betts’ guitar duo on “Little Martha” was inspired and inspirational. Our collective fetish was more than satisfied.

Former Led Zeppelin frontman Robert Plant and the Band of Joy closed out the festival. Theresa and I thoroughly enjoyed the set. Garr didn’t. Theresa and Garr enjoyed the Doobie Brothers. I didn’t.  Everyone has their own musical fetishes. There wasn’t much else we disagreed about.

At this point you’re probably asking: “What about Doc?” He’s the patriarch. It is his son the festival is dedicated to. It is he who attracts the top talent to MerleFest every year.

Theresa, Garr and I attempted to see Doc Saturday afternoon at the Walker Center, one of the few indoor venues at the festival. The gig was “My Friend Merle,” which was hosted by Mitch Greenhill and featured Doc; his grandson and Merle’s son, Richard Watson; Sam Bush; T. Michael Coleman; John Cowan; Bob Hill; David Holt; Jeff Little; Cliff Miller; and Joe Smothers. We arrived early, but not early enough. The auditorium was already packed to capacity and the line of anticipation snaked through the anteroom several times before extending through the outer doors.

We did catch Doc later Saturday evening for the 45-minute Docabilly set on the Watson stage with much of the same lineup. If you’ve never heard Jeff Little on the piano you’re missing out on life. Doc himself has lost a bit of a step in vocal strength and picking crispness, but not much. “See you all here next year,” Doc proclaimed at the end of the set. “Maybe, anyway. I’m 88 you know.”

Next year marks MerleFest’s 25th year. I promise we’ll get to the Walker Center much earlier next year, Doc. And when we’re done, we’ll still respect you in the morning.

Faces in the crowd: The People of MerleFest. Click to play.

People of MerleFest 2011

Tom Pfeifer is the managing partner and chief strategist for Consistent Voice Communications. Reach him at



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