The first full day of MerleFest got underway this morning, and the spirits of Merle and Doc were brightly shining down on the campus of Wilkes Community College. With crystal blue skies above, festival goers came in droves with chairs and blankets in-tow, ready to stake a sweet spot on the lawn in front of the Watson Stage.
I have to be honest, upon arrival — as a first timer — MerleFest was one of the most sprawling and initially intimidating festivals I’ve ever attended — not in the sense of the people present, but instead in the grand scale of things and the logistics that were required to successfully pull-off such a well-attended 4-day festival. However, intimidation dissolved with the first sweet southern smile from one of the ticket workers, who extended a friendly gesture that saved me a long hike up the dreaded hill to pick up my credentials. This, I thought, is what MerleFest is all about. This southern charm and hospitality was laid carefully into the festival’s foundation, and these qualities are certainly still alive and well 26 years after its inception.
My first quest was to get the lay of the land. I had planned out my day, but wasn’t sure about stage proximity and everything in between. As I walked through the alley of vendors, I passed families, groups of school-aged children, seasoned festival vets, and people who looked a lot like me — wide-eyed and taking it all in.
I explored the Expo tent for a quick bit, admiring all of the beautiful guitars, banjos, and mandolins from some of the best builders — Martin, Taylor, Collings, Deering — and paid a visit to my friend Andy at Cedar Creek Custom Case Shoppe. It was great to see a familiar face in the sea of people, and I knew I’d see more as the day progressed.
On my first day, I wanted to experience a little bit of everything, so I headed over to the Merle Watson Bluegrass Banjo Competition in Alumni Hall to catch some of the best pickers around. I was lucky get there just in time to hear the last competitor, Joshua Brand, who not only looked the part in his worn denim overalls, plaid shirt, and sweater, but also played the part and wowed the audience with his fast and effortless banjo picking. If the other competitors were anything like him, the judges were in for a tough decision.
Next it was on to hear some music outside. I strolled over to the Watson Stage for my first Bayou Diesel “experience.” Hailing from Black Mountain, NC, Bayou Diesel brought the Cajun heat to the stage with some New Orleans’ style zydeco that certainly got fans out of their seats to dance. Before heading over the Americana Stage, I decided to enter to win a baby Martin guitar, which required me to get up on Martin’s make-shift stage and perform a song. I thought, “You only live once, and well, Doc would want it this way.”
On to the Americana Stage for The Black Lillies, a 5-piece band out of Knoxville, TN who are quickly rising to the top of the charts, following a busy year of touring in 2012 and the release of their 3rd studio album “Runaway Freeway Blues” just last month. Their 8-song set was captivating with tight instrumentals and the type of harmonies that stop you dead in your tracks. I was fortunate enough to sit down and chat with the band after their set, and they were the most humble and gracious (and hilarious, too) group I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing. The afternoon was filled with more great music with Scythain on the Watson Stage — one of the festival’s fan favorite bands who have been known to get entire crowds up dancing, clapping, and singing along. This bluegrass boy-band packed their set with frenetic fiddling, and high energy songs that had everyone smiling.
The evening sets continued to impress. Over at the Hillside Stage, Delta Rae brought rock and blues to a new level, while the Steep Canyon Rangers mashed up on the Watson Stage. As the night began to set in, I thought it fitting to try another new activity–square dancing at the Dance tent. With a bit of apprehension, I joined a friend on the dance floor and followed caller Uncle Ted’s instructions. Before long, I could swing my partner and do si do with the best of them thanks to Uncle Ted, a sweet and funny guy who made everyone, especially the young dancers, feel at home on the dance floor.
The evening ended with a mellow set by guitar legend Warren Haynes backed by his band Gov’t Mule. The first full day of MerleFest had come to an end. It had been a long, sunny day of fabulous music, friendly people, and new experiences. It was time to rest up for another full day of music tomorrow.