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MerleFest Slideshow

May 2nd, 2007

Launch the MerleFest Slideshow!

We're on our way!

April 26th, 2007

MerleFest here we come. Jim, Ann and I are making the 8 hour trip today (Thursday). Check this space for reports, pictures and interviews from the festival. We plan on talking with Crooked Still, The Infamous Stringdusters, Jerry Douglas, and possibly a few others. It's a busy festival with 15 stages and 80,000 people! Check out this page for updates and blogs from MerleFest in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Jim's Van

Jim and his pups at a rest stop.

Posted by Chris Boros at 10:13am | Comments (0)

Day 1: Day one- driving in the rain and Cherryholmes

April 26th, 2007

Although I knew from looking at that it was going to rain pretty much everywhere I was going to be driving on my way down to MerleFest, the ferocity of the downpours caught me off guard a couple of times. Does anyone enjoy it when their car starts moving sideways? But I arrived in Wilkesboro without incident (my biceps a little sore from gripping the wheel so hard for 8 hours). Chris and Jim were nowhere in sight so I went over to the concert site to see Cherryholmes. Yay Cherryholmes! They were discovered by Rhonda Vincent are a family band in the old tradition of bluegrass. They started playing as a way to reconnect as a family after one of the sons died and they have developed since then as great band. There are shuttles from the campground (which reminds me a little of an upscale hobo encampment) and it seems that these rickety buses are legendary. Each year "campers" sign the ceilings to record their trips to MerleFest - like a classy bathroom stall. I tried to get a lay of the land, but the shopping area - which is immense - closed early, so no odd impulse purchases on day one. Look out for day two!

My car (where I slept) and the crazy guys behind us

The Watson Stage at night.

20th MerleFest kickoff jam hosted by John Cowan.

My "Press Pass" ticket.

Posted by Ann at 07:32pm | Comments (0)

We're here!!

April 27th, 2007

It's almost 2 AM on Friday morning and we're finally here--with Jim, his friend Eddie, and Jim's dogs Harriet and Kaylee. We're staying at a farm owned by great folks Jim met at MerleFest a few years ago. Nobody is here but luckily, we found an open building on the farm and found our home for the night. Eddie is already sleeping, Jim is outside fixing his sleeping space for the evening, and Harriet wants to go outside. Tomorrow, 15 stages of music!!! Check back here for more pictures and interviews from MerleFest 2007.

Jim looking..."Oh So Cool."

Me blogging.

My beer. Jim's beer.

My sleeping spot.

Jim's sleeping spot.

Me with the screen.

Posted by Chris Boros at 01:56am | Comments (0)

Day 2, part 1: Pickin' 'round the campfire

April 27th, 2007

The campground we're staying in is run by the Wilkesboro Fire Department. I'm sure we (and a lot of people like us) pay for everything else that happens in Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro for the rest of the year. It's huge and has a building with showers (a deal-breaker for me on this trip) and a snack bar - although I loaded up on juice boxes and peanut butter before leaving Ohio. I stopped at a place called Tamarack in West Virginia on my way down. It was sort of a fancy craft collective and very inspiring. Now, I'm listening to Dan Rose pick his guitar at our site with a bunch of new friends. There's a lot of jamming from campfire to campfire. With the rain and the free tunes, I slept like a baby in the back of my car. I've rearranged my daypack about 18 times because I really don't want to do a lot of traveling back and forth during the day. Still no sign of Jim or Chris and - since I have limited cell phone availability, I hope I find them amongst the masses.

We're not sure they went to any concerts, but they sure had fun.

West Virginia, home to Tamarack.

Tamarack rack card

My WFD parking pass.

Posted by Ann at 10:34am | Comments (0)

Day 2, Part 2: Donna the Buffalo at the Watson Stage

April 27th, 2007

The first band I saw this morning was the Worthless Son-in-Laws, which was good but maybe too rock-y for Folk Alley. I'm at the Watson stage watching Donna the Buffalo perform. A pattern is starting to emerge - people who haven't paid for reserved seats come to the early shows, set up their lawn chairs and leave. And, I might just do the same (although, I like DTB, so I'll wait until after the set). Who would take my tiny 3-legged stool when they could steal the chairs next to them? Donna played the Kent State Folk Festival this year and, since I was selling, t-shirts for most of the show, I almost forgot having seen them. Speaking of merchandise - I've already dropped a pile of cash at the merchandise tent. They do it right, each artist (even some who aren't here) has a spot and there's one check-out at the end. Without meaning to, I bought 4 CDs (new ones from Uncle Earl, Alison Krauss and Mary Chapin Carpenter and Cherryholmes latest). They have t-shirts for all of bands congregated at the end of the tent - it's like going to Bluegrass beach. BTW, I left some Folk Alley stickers at the free table in the merch tent, so if you don't see me, take one of those. I also have window clings in my daypack - today, I'm wearing a Folk Alley t-shirt, my hippie skirt and SPF 30 (I could use SPF 80 in this sun). Lots of people with instruments. Still haven't seen Chris or Jim, but I relayed a message to them by calling back home.

My "seat" day 2 with Donna the Buffalo onstage.

MerleFest program guide

Posted by Ann at 11:35am | Comments (0)

Day 2, Part 3: Crooked Still on the Creekside Stage

April 27th, 2007

Jim Blum always says that one of the best things about MerleFest is that artists will often drop in on each other's sets. I just saw my first example of this phenomenon as Ruth Ungar Merenda joined Crooked Still for a number Crooked Still is a young trad combo that Jim is really hot on. Have you ever seen a cello played like a fiddle? Now I have. BTW, there's a big patch of poison ivy here at the Creekside Stage and people are, rather desperately, sitting there anyway. This stage is right next to the site's tent camping, which would be cool if you wanted bluegrass to sleep - not so cool if you wanted to sleep. And I found perhaps the fancy portable restrooms ever. They're hidden off in a corner, so they're not even very crowded.

Viewing Crooked Still through the sound booth.

People sitting on poison ivy at the Creekside Stage.

MerleFest onsite tent camping beside the Creekside Stage.

Posted by Ann at 12:44pm | Comments (3)

Day 2, Day 4: Uncle Earl on the Americana Stage

April 27th, 2007

I'm seeing the real advantage of my hippie skirt - it's like wearing a lightweight picnic blanket. I can just plop down wherever I like. Uncle Earl is on the Americana Stage as part of the New Directions Series. Sharon Gilchrist, who used to be a member of the band, is sitting in. Uncle Earl is great because they combine virtuosity with strong songwriting. Plus, they're all really nice (I sold merch for them once and another time for Abby when she brought the Sparrow Quartet to the Kent State Folk Fest last year). The ladies are wearing black - so they're not all alike, but it's a theme. Crooked Still talked about wearing matching costumes like Cherryholmes did (although you couldn't prove it by me - I was far back and it was dark), maybe Jim, Chris and I should be wearing matching costumes. I still have yet to spot Jim and Chris, but I did run into Donna, one of my fellow campers, and Cousin Jimmy Wilson, another great Cleveland folk DJ. I think I'm going to buy some crystals and Crocs down on "Hippie Alley." It's hot, but at least there's a breeze.

Backstage at the Uncle Earl set at the Americana Stage.

More backstage with Uncle Earl.

Posted by Ann at 01:55pm | Comments (0)

Day 2, Part 5: Could it be? Yes, it's Jim!

April 27th, 2007

I stood in line to have Crooked Still autograph my blog (I'll have to scan it when I get back) and lo and behold, who was there but Jim and Chris? I knew if I haunted Jim's favorite groups long enough I would have to run into them. They were getting their audio interview with a couple of band members (Chris should have it posted later) and had time to set something up with Abigail Washburn. We caught up while watching the Infamous String Dusters and then I had to come and type up the day (which I've been writing out long hand). Then I think I'll eat something. Time for a little Barbecue, don't you think?

Crooked Still signed my blog!

Chris sets up to record.

Interviewing Crooked Still

Jim, Corey, Aoife and Chris

Posted by Ann at 04:05pm | Comments (0)

Interview with The Duhks from MerleFest.

April 27th, 2007

MerleFest 2007 is great fun! We ran into Leonard Podolak and Jordan McConnell from The Duhks after their set featuring their new singer Sarah Dugas. Click below to listen to the interview right now!

- Interview with The Duhks!

The Duhks with their new singer.

The Duhks!

Jim, The Duhks & me on the recorder.

Jim with Jordan and Leonard.

Jim, Jordan, & Leonard

Jordan from The Duhks

Leonard from The Duhks

A Young Duhkling with The Duhks

Sarah and Tania from The Duhks

The Duhks on the Americana Stage

Posted by Chris Boros at 09:38pm | Comments (4)

Interview with Crooked Still from MerleFest 2007!

April 27th, 2007

We spoke with Crooked Still at MerleFest. Hear the interview now!

- Crooked Still Interview from MerleFest 2007.

Crooked Still--Live

Aoife O'Donovan

Dr. Gregory Liszt

Corey, Rushad & Aoife

The Interview

Posted by Chris Boros at 09:41pm | Comments (0)

Hangin at the farm.

April 28th, 2007

It's 2 AM. We're back at the farm--Eddie and his friend are playing tunes in the barn and Jim and I are hanging in his van listening to George Noory and Coast to Coast AM. I thought while we're munching on chips and cheese, I'd share some pictures we took today at MereleFest. More interviews and blogs coming soon.

Ann and Jim.

Jim and Chris

A Folk Alley fan from afar.

John Paul Jones with Uncle Earl.

John Paul Jones playing mandolin.


Mr. Sam Bush

Sam Bush and Bryan Sutton

Bela Fleck and Sam Bush

Bela's Fingers

Jerry Douglas

Tony Rice

Good night!

Jim's new girlfriends.

Jim with Greg Tuwtwiler from Bridgewater, VA.

Jim with Folk Alley fan Bill Boyarsky.

Posted by Chris Boros at 02:01am | Comments (1)

Infamous Stringdusters Interview.

April 28th, 2007

We spoke with The Infamous Stringdusters at MerleFest 2007. Check out the interview right now.

- Interview with The Infamous Stringdusters from MerleFest 2007.

Jim with Jesse and Andy of The Stringdusters

Jim Interviewing The Stringdusters

The Stringdusters on stage.

The Stringdusters Jammin.'

The Stringdusters on the Hillside Stage

Andy from The Stringdusters

Dust Those Strings

Jesse Pickin'

Posted by ChrisBoros at 09:51am | Comments (0)

It Only Happens Here

April 28th, 2007

I never saw The Beatles...until yesterday. Watching Bela Fleck, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice play in one band has got to be as close to the Fab Four of our music as I'll ever get. The fact that each has reached the pinnacle of inventivness on their respective instruments is a huge part of it. But they are also best friends, which I also imagined The Beatles to be. Like a reunion, they seldom get the opportunity to be at the same place at the same time, or to play these songs they can't play without each other ("Natchez Trace," "Slipstream," and "Slopes.") On top of that, Bryan Sutton, Byran House, and a young fiddler filling in for Stuart Duncan, Luke Bulla were in the band. Each did more than hold their own.

I want to single out a tune that was a highlight. It was not the fastest or the hardest to play. "The Lights of Home" spotlights Jerry Douglas and first appeared on Bela's album "Drive." Suddenly, a bittersweet pause enveloped the Watson Stage audience. Everyone seemed to be remembering someone in their past. Jerry mentioned this was the 20th MerleFest and that this group had been at every one. I can recall attending in the 90's and while seeing the blue stage lights glisten off the metal resonater of his dobro, I could not help but remember that this is the 10th anniversarry of the end of my marriage. Most break-ups are painful but at this moment I could only look back with fondness. As I glanced around the audience, I'm sure others were having similar moments.

I just described one moment of one set on one day at MerleFest. You'll have to excuse me, I'm going back for more.

The Beatles...according to Jim.

Bela, Sam & Jerry

1/2 of the Revival: Bela & Sam

What A Band!

The crowd enjoys the New Grass Revival reunion.

Posted by Jim Blum at 10:16am | Comments (1)

Day 3, Part 1: The Belleville Outfit on the Americana Stage

April 28th, 2007

Day 3 and 10:30 has never seemed so early. After setting up my stool at the Watson stage, I'm watching the Belleville Outfit from Austin, TX. BTW, I will be posting pictures (eventually) and artist links. Chris has the laptop at his camping site and the public access computer I'm using won't let me upload from my camera. Tra la, life goes on. I've never heard of this group and it turns out that this festival is acting as their debut and a group. They're playing old time, honky tonk music (one of my favorites) and I know I can't be lured into buying another CD because they don't have one. Last night when Jim was interviewing an assortment of Duhks, I heard someone on the stage behind us and thought, "Who is that? I should buy that CD." Turns out, it was Robinella, and I already have the CD. Saved again! The big mainstage show yesterday was an acoustic set from Elvis Costello. Elvis has made a lot of interesting music in his day (much of which I have in my collection) and as much fun as it was seeing him up close, I was left wishing the show was a little bit more focused and less, "Here's a song I wrote that has some country elements in it." If they want to stretch, can't they just have Bela Fleck and the Flectones play? Bela's all over the place down here, what's one more set?

The Belleville Outfit Saturday morning.

A wall with a bas relief of bluegrass instruments with braille captions.

Instruments, Doc and Merle.

Posted by Ann at 10:30am | Comments (1)

Day 3, Part 2: Mando Mania on the Creekside Stage

April 28th, 2007

The big thing about MerleFest is how big it is - there are a lot of stages spread out across the Wilkesboro Community College campus. So, not only is there always something good onstage, there's unually too much to chose from. Right now, I can hear the end of the New Generation Super Jam (featuring members of the Duhks, Uncle Earl, Crooked Still and others) coming over the hill and the crowd is going crazy. I left that concert early to find a seat for Mando Mania. They're giving a brief history of the mandolin orchestra and the role the Gibson company played in making the mandolin a populist instrument. I'll save that story for later. Basically, at the turn of the 20th century, it was very popular to learn the mandolin as a "parlor" instrument and play together in mandolin community orchestras. Butch Baldassari tours a group of Nashville mando players as the Nashville Manadolin Ensemble (not that Butch is at MerleFest - that I know of). There's Sam Bush, Ronnie McCoury, Dan Tyminski, James Nash, Patrick Sauber and Sierra Hull with Tony Williamson hosting and Peter Rowan guesting on guitar.

New Generation Jam

More from the New Generation

Lucky audience members for the New Generation Jam

Posted by Ann at 12:28pm | Comments (1)

Day 3, Part 3: Pat Flynn and Friends on the Americana Stage

April 28th, 2007

I'm watching Pay Flynn almost by accident. I was actually on my way to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops play at the booth that No Depression magazine has at the festival. Then, I sat down and had a wonderful listening experience with someone I didn't recognize, but have probably heard on a recording or two. Pat Flynn is a Nashville session musician, which means that he plays behind other artists on CDs. I love it when the journeymen musicians play up front, especially the great ones who are sometimes held back by the fact that they are so in demand. Luke Bulla - or, as I'm going to refer to him from now on, "Cute Luke Bulla" - is playing fiddle. He's dressed in black, the other guys are wearing Hawaiian shirts. Give him time.

Pat Flynn with John Cowan & Buddy Green

1/2 of the Revival: Cowan and Flynn

Pat Flynn and Friends

Buddy Green, Pat Flynn, Luke Bulla and guest John Cowan (completely blocked)

Posted by Ann at 03:00pm | Comments (4)

Day 3, Part 4: Everyone in the world is here

April 28th, 2007

There are so many people everywhere around here today that it's a little overwhelming. And my Folk Alley shirt doesn't match my pants (it did in my head when I grabbed things this morning, but that's irrelevant). It's been hot and cool, sunny and cloud covered. People are now just finding a patch of grass and lying there sleeping. No groundcover. They're dropping like flies. Next up for me (I think) is Peter Rowan. Dan Rose saw him yesterday and said the performance made his MerleFest. I'm still trying to see the Carolina Chocolate Drops. Well, I can sleep in Ohio.

Watching the clouds roll in.

Posted by Ann at 03:54pm | Comments (0)

MerleFest Uncovers the Truth

April 28th, 2007

Chris's Vehical Of Choice.

Jim's Vehical Of Choice.

Chris's Car.

Jim's Car.

The Way Chris Gets Dates

The Way Jim Gets Dates

Posted by Chris Boros at 07:07pm | Comments (4)

Abigail Washburn Interview from MerleFest 2007!

April 29th, 2007

We caught Abigail walking around the MerleFest grounds so Jim ambushed her for a quick interview. She was playing five sets Saturday but was still gracious enough to talk with us. What a sweetheart. She's one of our favorites. Listen to the interview below.

- Abigail Washburn Interview from MerleFest 2007!

Jim and Abby

Chris, Abby & Jim

The Dynamic Duo

Uncle Earl On Stage

Uncle Earl on the Watson Stage

Abigail and Her Banjo

Posted by Chris Boros at 10:37am | Comments (0)

Merlefest: Singing to Empty Chairs

April 29th, 2007

I don't mean to sound like a complainer...and if you read our other glowing blogs you'll see we're mostly complimentary of this cherished event. BUT... there is a problem at Merlefest.

After 6 PM most other stages close except for the main stage, and at that stage the first approximately 80 rows are reserved. Reserved seat holders pay a healthy premium. On the surface that's fair; otherwise you'd think that people would be struggling over seats in the dark. That did happen a bit in years past, notably to one of the sponsors. Some festival advisors (no names please) have urged that the gate police disappear at 10 PM. That didn't happen Saturday night.

After 9:30, as the temperature dropped and the reserved pass holders grew tired, they began to file out, leaving Alison Krauss, Dan Tyminsky, Jerry Douglas, and Tony Rice to play to a sea of mostly empty green chairs. The dedicated fans were forced to sit way in the back, many on the ground. The sound was terrific and the video monitor was a huge bonus, but come on. Green chairs don't love music. If you'll excuse the pun, the cream of the crop was playing prime time to mostly weeds.

Last year the same thing happened during the Woody Guthrie tribute. Eliza Gilkyson, Slaid Cleaves, Jimmy LaFave and PETE SEEGER played to a cheering throng - banned from being within 250'. Woody's songs are full of passion for the working class - and those folks were forced to sit in the back and in the mud.

I understand "seat struggle" but if over 1/2 of the reserved seat holders are leaving, where is the struggle? I'm sure I sound dejected from not being able to see these arists up close whom I've dedicated my life to promoting, but honest to god, I'm more concerned about them. Here were two wonderful tributes, to Woody Guthrie last year, and to Tony Rice this year. Let the players not only hear the applause, let them SEE the audience! Why not make empty reserved seats available to all around 10 pm, or earlier if the pass holders have left?

Please understand, I love Merlefest and I spend 4 months of every year promoting it. I just want the artists and the audience not to be seperated from each other. I may not have offered the best answer, but I need to bring to light that there is a problem.

Jim Blum

Posted by Jim Blum at 04:40pm | Comments (5)

Darrell Scott and The Empty Green Chairs

April 29th, 2007

So much music. So many people. An amazing festival. The organizers, volunteers, security, sound guys, and musicians were stellar in making this an amazing festival. I’m already making plans for MerleFest 2008. This was an absolute smorgasbord of the best of the best. With so much to see, somehow we managed to miss New Grass Revival back on stage again. From what we hear, it was amazing. Hopefully, our buddy Jimmie Wilson from WRUW was there and he’ll have some pics. By the way, the really good pictures on the blog are his—-thanks Jimmie.

If anyone stood out for me at MerleFest 2007, it has to be Darrell Scott. This guy is a powerhouse. His songs are filled with depth and emotion and his guitar work is on par with the very best. We had a great chance to see him play solo in “The Lounge” on Friday night. This show was the highlight of my MerleFest experience. I didn’t bring my recording gear out with me on Saturday and probably blew a chance to interview him, but I didn’t want to turn this entire festival into work, so I left the recorder behind. It really wasn’t that heavy…

Here are some pictures of Darrell in action during a show with some of his friends on Saturday. He did “Old Joe Clark,” one of my favorites.

The empty green chairs up front were disappointing. Luckily, the green fence that kept us from those special chairs during Alison Krauss weren’t much of a barrier to better times. The last four songs of Alison’s set, with Tony Rice, sitting in the fifteenth row, is something I will always remember.

Darrell, with Gabe Dixon on Piano.

Mr. Scott

Darrell's fingers

Casey Driesen played with Darrell on Saturday

The crowd for Darrell

Let's rock

Alison Krauss

Union Station w Rice

Tony Rice & Alison Krauss

Posted by Chris Boros at 09:10pm | Comments (4)

Back Home Again in Ohio

April 30th, 2007

What a wild trip was MerleFest 2007. Along with hearing all of the wonderful performers, I also met lots of nice people from all over the country, and a couple who drive down every year from nearby Boone. It was a reminder that MerleFest is not only a national festival, but a regional and local event as well. I'm sure most of the residents of Wilkesboro and North Wilkesboro are involved somehow - driving the shuttles, making and selling food, volunteering for the festival. There are so many volunteers, and they all seemed to maintain their cheerfulness. As I was getting crushed waiting on the shuttle back to the campground, someone behind me remarked that it would be much more unruly if MerleFest allowed alcohol at the event (which they do not, no sales, nothing brought in) and I have to agree. With that huge audience, it was a very civil crowd. I was allowed up in the green chair section several times to take pictures. And, while I can see why the artists would want more people near the stage, I think that, honestly, once those of us on the lawn had our chairs set up, our coolers, blankets, bags and everything else arranged the way we liked it, there wouldn't be a lot of folks moving up. The sound was excellent the entire weekend, and it was a true challenge, especially during the jams with people moving on and off stage. The crews kept it moving (and there is a giant video screen so you can see faces and instruments better than sitting in the seats). So, good music, good fun and no more cheesesteak for awhile!

Camera guys filming Blue Highway.

The camera crew filmed all Watson Stage concerts for broadcast and display on the large video screen.

This is Bluegrass - Blue Highway performs.

Posted by Ann at 12:05pm | Comments (0)

Sierra Hull and the Young Energy of MerleFest

April 30th, 2007

Merlefest has always been a great environment to inspire young musicians. Let's briefly drift back in time to the 14th annual Merlefest, which took place back in 2001. Nickel Creek had just finished performing when an eight year old girl brought her mandolin to the stage to ask Chris Thile if he would sign it. Ever gracious, Chris was delighted to autograph it for her.

While he was signing, she mentioned to him that it had always been her dream to play with him. Well, Chris immediately grabbed his own mandolin, and the two of them went off to a couple of folding chairs on a nearby out-of-the-way sidewalk. They started trading tunes, with Chris giving her encouragement all the way. And for the tiny crowd of us who got to watch this exchange, some of the magic of Merlefest took place right before our eyes. This eight year old was a surprisingly good mandolinist! We asked her name, and she told us that she was Sierra Hull.

It's now 2007, and that little girl is now 14 years old and leading her own band. Sierra Hull and Highway 111 may be new to Merlefest this year, and many in the audience are no doubt hearing her for the very first time. But for those few of us who watched her play on that sidewalk in 2001, there was no doubt at all that this day was coming.

Sierra has just signed with Rounder Records and is working on her first major CD, and I, for one, am really looking forward to it!

Miss Hull

Sierra and the Mandolin

Sierra Hull

Sierra Hull & Highway 111

Posted by Jimmy Wilson from WRUW in Cleveland, Ohio at 02:43pm | Comments (5)

More Pictures from MerleFest 2007!

April 30th, 2007

We took SO many pictures at this year's MerleFest. Extra special thanks to Jimmie Wilson from WRUW for many of these amazing shots. If you were there and have pictures you'd like us to post--send them my way and I'll get them up. You can even post a blog entry on your memories. Write and send me your pics at

Uncle Earl w/ Bela & John Paul Jones

Welcome to MerleFest

Crowd for Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Nitty Gritty Dirt Band

Nashville Bluegrass

Ruthie Foster

Mr. Blum

John Cowan

Chris & Jim

Peter Rowan

Peter Rowan #2

A Funny T-Shirt

Jim walking in the crowd

The Waybacks with Rushad

John Cowan singing with The Waybacks

New Generation Jam #1

New Generation Jam #2

New Generation Jam #3

Leonard & Abby

New Generation Jam #4

New Generation Jam #5

Leonard from The Duhks

A Duhk & Duhkling

Sarah--new singer for The Duhks

Bela with Uncle Earl

K.C Groves and Abby

John Paul Jones

Bela & Abby

Rayna from Uncle Earl

Bela & John Paul Jones

KC & Kristin from Uncle Earl

KC Groves from Uncle Earl

The Moon on Saturday Night

Elvis Costello

Uncle Earl Jam

Posted by Chris Boros at 05:38pm | Comments (0)

Square Dancing at Merlefest

May 1st, 2007

It's 10:00 on Saturday night at Merlefest, and one of the finest sets of the entire weekend is taking place on the main stage: Alison Krauss is helping to celebrate the music of Tony Rice. So what on earth was I doing half way across the campus at the dance tent? Was I crazy to be missing Tony and Alison?

If so, there were a couple of hundred other crazy people right there with me.
We were dancing to the music of an incredible string band, featuring Dirk Powell, Riley Baugus, Martha Scanlon, and more. And we were led by a great caller, Phil Jameson.

I refer to it as "square dancing", but in actuality we did square dances, circle mixers, contra dances, and a few other configurations like a Virginia Reel and a six-couple circle dance. These are all traditional dances that originate in various parts of the country - mostly in Appalachia, except for contra dancing which originates in New England. And these dances have a great deal in common. They all feature the same basic set of moves (swing or do-si-do, for example), and they are all set to the same basic 32-bar fiddle tunes.

Phil has been calling these dances at Merlefest for as long as I can remember.
In the early days, we had to dance on the parking lot, which left a lot to be desired. But about ten years ago, they added a proper dance tent with a wooden floor, and then a few years later they expanded it to a much larger space. So we've really got a very nice space for dancing now at Merlefest.

The dance tent is used for many different dance events, but the square dances are the main focus. This year there were five such dances, two on Friday, two on Saturday, and another on Sunday afternoon, each featuring a different set of incredible old-time musicians.

The dances that Phil calls are generally some pretty simple ones. Because there are so many inexperienced dancers on the floor, he has to keep things at a pretty basic level. But for me, that's a lot of the fun. In fact, I go out of my way to find partners who haven't tried it before, just to help keep the dance community growing. It's fun to help a new dancer get started.

And this year, I had a great experience with that. One of the women on the dance floor said to me, "I remember you from last year! You convinced me to come and dance with you, even though I'd never tried it before. And you know what? I've been dancing ever since - I love it!" I can't imagine a better result than that.

At that Saturday night dance, I noticed a lot of familiar faces on the dance floor, including some of the best of the Merlefest musicians. I was a little nervous about this, but I couldn't resist - I walked right up to Ruth Ungar Merenda and asked her to dance. Now keep in mind that Ruth is not only a great musician and singer, but she is also the daughter of fiddler and composer Jay Ungar, so she's been dancing since before she was born! But I managed to hold my own, and we enjoyed a lovely dance.

The Sunday dance was something special as well. In fact, I was looking forward to it all weekend. The band was to be Uncle Earl! I've danced to a lot of great musicians over the years, but this was certain to be a highlight. Of course for most of their sets this weekend, Uncle Earl has been joined on stage by their current producer, John Paul Jones. Sure enough, he showed up at the dance tent as well and joined in with Uncle Earl for the afternoon. Who could have ever imagined that I'd get the opportunity to square dance to a band that included one of the members of Led Zeppelin? Just amazing!

If you've never tried contra dancing or square dancing, Merlefest is a great place to get started. But you don't have to wait for the next Merlefest. Here in northeastern Ohio, there are dances held literally every weekend. And the same is true in many other areas around the country. You don't need to bring a partner, you don't need any special wardrobe (other than comfortable shoes), and you don't need any real knowledge or skill. The caller will teach you the steps of each dance before it starts. If you're brand new to it, get there a little early. They usually have a little lesson for newcomers just before the dance, and the caller usually starts the evening with the easy dances, working gradually up to the more complicated ones.

Here's a website that can help you find a dance in your area:

Uncle Earl in the dance tent with John Paul Jones

The Dance Tent with The Uncle

Posted by Jimmie Wilson from WRUW in Cleveland, Ohio at 10:15am | Comments (0)

The MerleFest Midnight Jam!

May 1st, 2007

The Merlefest Midnight Jam has been going on ever since the festival's beginning back in 1988. It was like pretty much every festival - the performers would get together after hours and mix it up, with various combinations of musicians getting together to play whatever they wanted to play. Different material, different instruments, anything to just have a good time making music without the formality of a regular stage show.

Needless to say, the festival audience found this to be just as entertaining as the regular daytime sets. So they'd watch and listen if they could. In its earliest days, anyone could go and enjoy the late night jams, assuming they had enough energy left after several full days of music. But as time went on, the crowds for the jam got large enough that Merlefest had to begin to manage the attendance. The festival was only a couple of years old, but already the Midnight Jam had grown to where it required a ticket to get in.

In recent years, tickets to the jam have been pretty hard to come by. They are generally sold out long before the festival starts, so unless you've acquired them in advance, it can be very hard to get them. But there are always a few people who are willing to sell theirs, and they generally trade at face value ($40 this year). We got ours by leaving our cell # on a note at the Merlefest Bulletin Board (a real, physical board, not a computer system), and sure enough, someone called to offer us four tickets.

For most of its history, the Jam would feature the major stars of the day: Sam, Jerry, Bela, Tony, Emmylou, Alison, and their various bandmates. But that's been changing over the past few years. Lately, it seems to be the younger crowd, the next generation, that is acting as the core of the jam. So last year, for example, we had Nickel Creek as the hosts of the jam, and many of their contemporaries joining them on stage over the course of the evening.

This year's host was Leonard Podolak of the Duhks. He and his bandmates hosted an incredible jam that also featured the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Crooked Still, Uncle Earl, the Incredible Stringdusters, the Belleville Outfit, Ruth Ungar (of the Mammals), Dirk Powell, Sierra Hull, Martha Scanlon, Tara Nevins, dancer Ira Bernstein, Bela Fleck, Casey Driessen, Bryan Sutton, James Nash (of the Waybacks), and many, many more.

And they did mix it up. Though the set was carefully planned, I can't think of a single instance in the entire 2.5 hours where any one band seemed to predominate the festivities. Sometimes there were only two or three people on stage, at other times it would be twenty to thirty. But it was always a combination of musicians that one didn't ordinarily see together.

One of the high points of the jam was a very wild performance (and a sing along, no less) by Rushad Eggleston of a piece he called "Paranoidness and Pain, gonna pick them up and throw them down the drain". He's a crazy man in several different ways - his wardrobe, his incredible cello work (how many bluegrass cellists can you name?), and his outrageous antics and songs.

As the participants in the Midnight Jam have changed, so has the audience. This
collection of young string bands is certainly not afraid to take chances, and that is exactly the sense of daring that the audience seems to embrace. The hard core bluegrass crowd isn't as likely to attend as they once were, but the jam was quite well attended nonetheless.

Of course, the jam isn't just another show. The members of these young bands are still in a musically formative stage, and they truly need this interchange of ideas to keep their own music fresh and growing. So the jam is not just a great set of entertainment, it's also a very real chance for the musicians themselves to get together and inspire and learn from each other.

Admittedly, I was exhausted by the 2:30AM finish, and while I didn't fall asleep during the show, I was certainly in a pretty spacey frame of mind. But I'm really, really glad that I went. And if I can't completely remember everything that I saw and heard, at least I have a great set of pictures to remind me.

Midnight Jam #1

Sierra Hull

Sometymes Why

Rushad and Liszt

Corey and Aoife

Midnight Jam #2

Midnight Jam #3

Midnight Jam #4

Aoife and Abby



Bryan Sutton

Casey, Bela & Sutton

Midnight Jam #5

What a Jam!

Midnight Jam #6

Look at all those people

Posted by Jimmie Wilson from WRUW in Cleveland, Ohio at 10:23am | Comments (6)

Sometymes Why at MerleFest.

May 1st, 2007

The "official" Merlefest is an incredible mix of music, traditional and contemporary, young and old, loud and soft, and, well, you get the idea. But every once in a while, something takes place at Merlefest that is completely unplanned and unexpected.

Three of the young women at Merlefest this year got together for an unscheduled set of music that did not take place on any of the official Merlefest stages, nor was it listed in any of the official guides. Instead, this particular set was held - by invitation - in the middle of a patch of asphalt in front of the No Depression magazine booth. The trio pulled up some chairs, then sang and played a delightful set of songs with nothing more than their acoustic instruments and voices. No sound system, no amplification, just pure music.

The trio calls themselves Sometymes Why, and they are made up of Ruth Ungar Merenda (of the Mammals), Aoife O'Donovan (of Crooked Still) and Kristin Andreassen (of Uncle Earl). Their songs are pretty, light, and very quiet, which is a challenging combination for a trio of unamplified women in a noisy Merlefest shopping area. But the audience that surrounded them listened carefully and hung on to their every word. It was a sweet set, and the small crowd that discovered it will remember it well.

Fortunately, I was able to get a few photos.

If you'd like to learn more about Sometymes Why, see their website or Myspace:

Sometymes Why #1

Aoife O'Donovan

Ruth Unger

Kristin Andreassen

Sometymes Why #2

Posted by Jimmie Wilson, WRUW, Cleveland at 10:33am | Comments (0)

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