Merle Fest 2009 Saturday and Sunday
I played so much over the weekend I didn’t take time to write. We spent most of Saturday at the Creekside Stage. Darin and Brooke Aldridge were back and Jim Lauderdale sat in with them. They had another fine show and attracted attention from record labels and promoters.
John Cowan was up next. He sang ‘I’ve Got Nothing But the Blues’ like he means it, and everyone rocked to “Jesus Give Me Water,” a mix of Sam Cooke with Beach Boy-like harmony. John is rock and soul, acoustic and bluegrass with drums; maybe not traditional but just as authentic.
The Bellville Outfit from Austin, Texas by way of Spartanburg, S.C. and Connecticut might not be a band you’d hear at a straight bluegrass festival but they were excellent. They had drums and a key-board and a hot Strat guitar man. This was a high energy new act I did not know until this festival. Phoebe Hunt, the girl who fiddled, was part Broadway, a bit of classical, Cajun, Texas swing, and a charming show tune singer all mixed in to one.
MandoMania is a showcase for all the best mandolin players on one stage. Hosted by Tony Williamson and Sam Bush, this year’s line-up was Mike Compton, Darin Aldridge, Sierra Hull, Rebecca Lovell, and Alex Johnstone. Each is a special player. Jeff Autry, John Cowan’s guitar sidekick, did the backup with as fine a chord selection as you’ll ever hear. Tony said Jeff was his favorite guitar man to accompany mandolin tunes, and I understood why. I was backstage for that one, and planned to jam some later Saturday.
I might also note Mandomania was brought to you by by Tony’s shop, Mandolin Central, and they are happy to provide all of your mandolin needs!
After supper it was Doc Watson. Doc is as humble a legend as I have ever met. He is 86, but like fine wine, gets better with each year. After Doc it was Emmylou Harris and then Sam Bush. They jammed together for a while for a reunion of Emmy Lou’s Nash Ramblers from the days Sam was with the band after New Grass Revival.
Sunday morning it was Doc again, this time with the Nashville Bluegrass Band for their traditional Sunday morning gospel set. Doc told of a time in the hospital and how a nurse saved his life. I’ll save the story for you to hear Doc tell it, but it was instructive. In the hospital, everyone needs an advocate and Doc had one. I still love Doc’s playing and singing as much as any performer ever.
Sierra was on the big stage again, and then Pete Wernick jammed with Buddy Greene the harmonica player. They were joined by the Gibson Brothers. Who says folks from North of the Mason/Dixon line can’t sing with Southern inflection? These guys were the best brother harmony I heard all weekend.
At one point, even old Doc B got to play. I shared the Tut Taylor stage with a fine flat-picker named Steve I’d never met. We did ‘East Tennessee Blues’ first.
“Nice work man. Where’d you learn it?” he asked.
“I got that version from Darin Aldridge. He’s my right hand mando man; I’ve learned a lot from that kid.”
“He’s a player.”
We broke into ‘Beaumont Rag.’ The second time around I subbed some chord inversions.
He noticed. “I like that swing.”
“Thanks. I picked up those passing chords from Wayne Benson last week.”
It was my first time on a MerleFest stage. (Except for the first one when I was on stage under an assumed name) It was a nice moment for me. I am not a pro player, but with Darin on your right hand and Wayne on your left, even old Doc can get to proficiency. (It takes a mandolin community to raise a Doctor.)
Then it was back to Creekside with George Hamilton IV. He played with Darin and Brooke. I could tell he enjoyed the set. It wouldn’t surprise me to see those kids on the Opry before long.
Linda Ronstadt was up next but we had to go and get our dog out of the vet before they closed, so we missed her show.
As we walked out we went by Alberti’s flea circus. The children were fascinated and all gathered around like mine used to do. A lady recognized me from my FaceBook page and had read about when I visited the Mississippi school kids who read my short stories. She asked if I would come to her classroom, bring my mandolin, and write something for her kids.
“Sure,” I said. “I’d be honored. Writers love to do that sort of thing.” I hoped at this point I was a writer. I guess it is like chili says, “When you hit that publish button you are a writer whether you know it or not.”
My feet hurt, the pollen had all but overwhelmed me, and my wrinkles were filled in with red clay dust. I gotta change mandolin strings. Mine are caked in dirt and grime and sunscreen.
This was the hottest MerleFest I could recall, but a nice breeze blew in as we walked to the car. The smell of roasted peanuts and elephant ears rode the wind, and I took one last whiff. I was all but exhausted, but I’ll go home and put on a pot of coffee for the morning. Tonight I’ll crash early. Come tomorrow I’ll be ready to jump out of the phone booth and have the courage to be the best Doc I can all over again.
I was ready to be home, but as we left I stopped at the hotel and made my reservations for next year. Merle Fest is my spring battery recharge and I wouldn’t miss it.