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A day at Merlefest 2015

Nicholas Robinson

April 28, 2015

Merlefest rules. That’s my summation of the festival. Here’s a little history I picked up from the volunteers there. Merlefest honors the legacy of American roots musicians. Doc described Merlefest music as ‘traditional plus’. Basically traditional plus whatever else they wanted to throw in at the time. Which perfectly describes not only the music, but also the festival as a whole. You have craft vendors selling everything from homemade jewelry to swag North Carolina shirts (which was literally what they were called). There was a mouth-watering variety of food in the food tent, and god forbid you walk into the instrument expo tent. It’s like dying and walking into music gear heaven.

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Rosa Lee, Doc and Merle show at Freedom Park on July 4, 1982. Photo by Jim Morton

Everywhere you go, there’s music happening somewhere around you. When I first arrived, I walked past the line-dancing tent. I’ve never seen line dancing in person, but—I kid you not—it was like walking into a folk version of popular Charlotte b-boy hip-hop event Knocturnal. Crazy moves, people of all ages line dancing to a band that’s just slaying in the best way. I’ve never seen so many people gifted at the fiddle and banjo in one place, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville. Everyone on the staff I met was kind, welcoming, and genuinely happy to be there. The festival has become so well known they have volunteers from as far away as Australia coming to the mountains of North Carolina to be apart of it.

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Photo by Billy Porter

The next stage I came to happened to be during the middle of the Gravy Boys’ set. The band did a cover of “Strawberry Fields Forever” and was probably one of the most unique covers I’ve ever heard. They played the intro everyone knew and then launch into a straight barn-stomping, jam fest. Then, after they finished, they’d go back and do it again. While walking around and admiring the beautiful setting of the festival, I came across the Christian Lopez Band. I could hear Christian singing almost halfway across the festival grounds and I was just drawn in to what they were doing. It was a newer, more familiar style of roots music to me, and one the band did extremely well. Even though they were beside the main stage and not on it, they held the crowd captivated.

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Photo by Sara Whitebox

The fact that Merlefest had the amount of well known acts it did, along with the amazing up and coming acts is indicative of the growth and attention they are receiving. This year over 78,000 people showed up to the town of Wilkesboro, population size roughly 4,000 people. Of course the big news for this year to people like me who aren’t as knowledgeable about American Roots music was The Avett Brothers. They’ve been ripping around the country and the world for the past few years gaining a worldwide following. Known for their amazing showmanship and the honesty of their music and lyrics, they’ve struck a chord with people of all walks of life. Dr. Cloer at UNCC still talks about teaching the Avett brothers in his music classes. I had the pleasure of sitting in on the press conference with them earlier in the day before their performance, and I can tell you this: they are the kind of guys that make you feel like you already know them. They are just good people, who happen to play in one of the biggest bands in the country. Listening to their stories about Doc, or watching Seth and Scott catch up with Peter Rowan helps you get a glimpse of what Merlefest will become. The people like Peter Rowan and their own father Jim Avett are passing it down the younger boys to continue the tradition.

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Photo by Kyle Johnson

That’s what it’s about. Merlefest is a passing down of tradition from the old guard to the new, to push forward the growth of a music that’s as a part of North Carolina as the red clay beneath our feet. So don’t wait until you see a lineup for next year. Get those tickets as soon as they are announced because I promise, you will not regret it.

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