Posted tagged ‘MerleFest’

MerleFest,TKL Cases, and Dr. B

April 27, 2011

        I’m off Friday and will be at MerleFest for the weekend. It’s a family tradition; we’ve been to all but one.

        I’ll be there to take in the show, but also will be at the TKL Cedar Creek Custom Case booth for part of our stay. Drop by to speak to ’em and tell ’em Dr. B sent ya. In addition to their fine cases, they will have copies of my novel, “The Mandolin Case,” available. Both took many years to develop, and I believe both are cases of integrity. (I have seen their banjo and guitar versions, the new mandolin case may not be ready yet, but I have seen the drawings.)

        I’ll come around and sign the book if anyone wants me to. My scrawl is well-known around North Carolina, but just don’t try to trade it for a prescription. I’m not sure I’ll get a break and have time to sing “In the Jail House Now” for you. Besides, if I was to sing it that old jailer might not be impressed enough to spring you.

        The exact times I’ll be there are TBA. For all my obsessive-compulsive and weary-worry tendencies as a country doc, I’m pretty relaxed (though still reliable) as an artist. I believe in the great golfer Walter’s Hagen’s quote, “Never hurry, never worry, and always remember to stop and smell the roses.” But, if it hadn’t been for my wife, my kids, and all my music friends I’m not sure I would have lived long enough to be so laid back about it all, cause I was a driven young Doc. But, I’ve made it this far and we’re MerleFest bound again Friday. Hope you’ll come visit.

        See ya there.

Dr. B


Thanks To The Journey People

May 8, 2010

        Before I launch into the series of posts on the writer journey, I wanted thank everyone involved in the “Journey of the People’s Mandolin.” I hope it will have a safe trip and wind up in the International Bluegrass Music Museum for its final resting spot.

        Most of all I want to thank my wife and kids. They have tolerated my maniacal doctor/picker/writer lifestyle for years without complaint. They love the music too, and they make my life very good. I couldn’t live without ’em.

       Ted and Irene Lehmann were the first to ask about the journey, and the mandolin is now in their hands. Ted writes one of the biggest independent bluegrass blogs in the world, and his documentation of MerleFest is the most complete I’ve seen. His web address is at:

        Gabrielle Gray heads up the International Bluegrass Music Museum. Ted knew her from his wide travels and got us in touch. She liked the idea for the people’s mandolin journey, and also believes it will make it home safely. Their site is: 

        Merlefest. They kindly granted me backstage access at Mandomania so all the artists I told you about this week could sign the mandolin. The emcee recognized me. “Doc, you’ve been to all of these haven’t you?”

        “Missed one. l couldn’t get call covered in 1990.”

        Merlefest is the granddaddy of acoustic music festivals on the East Coast. It is not all bluegrass, but has a variety of artists; something for everyone. Their address:

        Mike Lane is a professional photographer. I think I’ve seen him at almost every bluegrass event I’ve been to in the Carolinas over the last few years. He took the first shots of “The People’s Mandolin” for archival purposes and will recreate the shoot when the mandolin makes its way back to the Museum.

        Mike’s work is all over the Internet. In a paparazzi age of cold hard light of reality, Mike still opts for subtleties of soft glow early morning sun backlight or old banjo picker’s last tunes in long shadows of dusk. His palate is of burnt siennas instead of browns, and his images stir the imagination rather than slap you up side the head. I’m a snap shot picture taker. Mike is a photographer. His website address is:

        It is unusual for me, but I did post a few pictures today. I thought the Snyder kids were especially cute. One apology. I tried my best to post one of me and wasn’t able to. Maybe I’m a little self-conscious of one green eye and one blue one, or perhaps it was just one reader’s voice in my head.

        He said, “Doc, when you write about Harvey County I can go there in my brain and it takes me away for a minute. I hope you won’t spoil it with too many pictures.”

        Try as I might, I’m not a journalist. You can’t change what you are, and I’m only a physician bluegrass fiction writer who only dabbles in other genres. As the farmer said, “You gotta be what you are or you ain’t what you is.”  

        This week was hectic, and I wanted to document a lot of data in a hurry. But it also brought my purpose into focus. My writer soup has to be slow cook simmered for me to figure out what I want to say. I found it very difficult to create a post each day and still tend to my family and my doctor and mandolin gigs with the balance that satisfies me. I always was a harmony singer. So, come Monday I’m gonna get back to a “two-a-week” format, and start with some thoughts on the writer journey. See you then.

Dr. B


Sam Bush (North Carolina Memories)

May 3, 2010

        I had all plans to start a series today about the writer journey, but I was so inspired by MerleFest, I decided to wait a week. Look for that next Monday. It will be a run-up to an announcement about my book, which after all these years is now very close.

        Today I’m gonna tell you about Sam Bush. For those of you who don’t already know, Sam is the number one rocking mandolinist in the world.

        I first saw Sam years ago with Newgrass Revival at a club called Green Acres. Green Acres was way out in the country. The closest town was Bostic, N.C. and it was not easy to find. I got there because a patient told me about a guy named Rocko. I never knew his real name. The deal was he’d drive you there while he was sober if you’d agree to drive him back home after the show. At age twelve he’d driven the gas truck to deliver fuel oil for his father’s business, so he knew every pig path out there.

       “The sheriff don’t even know this road,” he say. “Never did get caught for no license or DUI either one.”

        I’m not sure you can even get to Green Acres in the daylight. We followed moonlit moonshiner back roads by old abandoned school houses and still occupied graveyards. I went several times before I was sure I could find my way back alone. When we got there it was dim lights and thick smoke. Some of the chairs were long benches like church pews and others were old movie house seats salvaged when the local theater burned down. We stood in the back in the event of fire. A fellow named “Little King” came up to greet us. He was slightly rotund, and had a long white beard that woulda made Santa Clause proud.

        As it turned out “King” was the local Health Department director. He was a solid honest man, but I promise you all the society people didn’t know what to make of him because he spent his money bringing new acoustic music acts to town instead of paying country club dues. We’d never heard of most of the bands he brought in, but they were all good. The first great one that came through was Newgrass, and Sam Bush was the mandolin player.

       It was a Halloween masquerade party. Sam was dressed up like a pirate and had a patch over one eye and some kinda peg leg. I recall Bela went as Bela and was dressed in the standard checked shirt he wore in those days. Pat Flynn was red hot on the guitar and we’d never heard anyone sing like this Cowan guy they brought. I went as Dr. B with a stethoscope around my neck. (If you believe your doctor should be boring I’ll do.)

        The crowd hoisted some fellow overhead who had on a  turban and a white robe. Everyone shouted “Bagwan, Bagwan, Bagwan,” to the top of their lungs as they passed him around the crowd. It was my first time to hear Newgrass and it changed my life. I think they did “White Freightliner” ’cause we learned it right about then.

        Years later I stood in line at Merlefest to get Sam to sign a pack of strings. (I still have the autograph) “I ain’t gonna bother you man,” I said, “but I gotta ask, this is a bigger gig than Green Acres, huh?”

        He smiled and nodded. I moved on. There were hundreds who wanted to speak to him, and he looked tuckered to me.

        In the mid 90s, I ran into Sam at one of Butch Baldassarri’s workshops. We thought we could play a little, but when Sam cranked up I put mine in the case, latched it up, and listened. He filled up the room with music all by himself. Recently at Merlefest Mandomania Sam said you can learn something from every mandolin picker you hear. I sure did learn a lot back then. For one thing I learned I’d better hold onto to my stethoscope, this guy was good!

       Another time Sam was at a local radio station and my friends called me to come over at lunch. He let me play his old Gibson, (Hoss) which is even more weathered in person than it looks in pictures or on T.V. The case was about to fall apart. He toted a Goldrush mandolin that day too. I was at work on “Brilliancy” at the time. I played a few bars. Sam looked over my shoulder and flashed that crooked grin and look of surprise he gets as if to say he was gonna “steal” a lick from me.

       “Shut up man,” I said. He laughed out loud. If you are against a good time, don’t hang out with Sam Bush. He’s gonna have fun. 

        Nowadays Sam plays to sixty thousand people as a headliner at MerleFest, but I want to tell you I don’t think Sam Bush has changed except he is a deeper artist than ever. Every time I have seen the man play a show he has gone all out to give his best. I admire that. There are days when I feel bad, but I try not to show it to my patients. They are owed my best every time. I bet Sam sees it the same way.

        So now you understand why I was so appreciative of him this weekend. There were dozens of people tugging at him backstage, but he took the time to sign “The People’s Mandolin” and had a photo-op with it and all the players on Mandomania.

        So, I want you to come away with this for today. Sam Bush is pure acoustic music enthusiasm without fail. Go see him and buy a CD; he is a true artist who gives his best be it the old times at Green Acres or nowadays at MerleFest.

        I know one thing. If the man can make me forget my troubles for a few hours and get an old button-down shirt doc to howl at the moon he’s a powerful entertainer. Y’all check him out. Here’s his website:

Dr. B

The Kick off of The Journey of The People’s Mandolin at Merle Fest

May 2, 2010

        Poor Gabrielle Gray. I told her to meet me at the bagel shop. She wandered around nearby for a while and stopped to ask. The young lady listened for a minute and said, “You must be Ms. Gray from the Museum. Daddy never gives good directions. It’s called the Dine ‘n Dash.”

        I knew who she was when she walked in ’cause she had on an International Bluegrass Museum shirt. We sat down with the Lehmanns and ordered up some breakfast. Mike Lane, an old pro bluegrass photographer from the Carolinas was there to shoot some pics.

        The best ideas are always the simple ones. We were carrying on so about where the little mandolin might go that a lady walked up to inquire. “You folks seemed to be having so much fun I had to see what was going on.”

        “Yes ma’am, we are,” I said. “As we say in bluegrass, we aren’t having any fun but at least we’re making a lot of money.”

        She laughed and asked to look at the mandolin. “Who are your favorite mandolin players?””

        “Darin Aldridge and Wayne Benson.” She asked why. “Ma’am, I’m one more lucky country doctor picker. Darin has been my mando sidekick for many years and taught me more than anyone ever could. He sent me to finishing school with Wayne Benson. If a man can’t learn the mandolin with Darin on his right hand and Wayne on his left, he’s outta luck. They’ll always be my favorites. You gotta dance with who brung ‘ya.”

        She was a real estate agent from Hendersonville, and one of the first folks from outside my little world to see the mandolin. She wished it luck on its journey and was on her way.

         During the day it was signed by so many people we lost count. Ted Lehmann had a brainstorm, made a few connections, and all of  a sudden it was backstage at Mandomania. It was a surreal moment. My little mandolin’s gonna try to make it around the world and back and there to kick it off and sign were all the best players at Merlefest. They took a picture of Sam Bush holding it surrounded by all the guys who played Mandomania for the day. The notion of Tony Williamson, Mandomania moderator and master of multiple mandolin styles and Sam Bush, the King of Newgrass and rocking right hand reggae ruler of the Mandolin Universe blessing the voyage was too cool.

        Over the next few weeks I want to tell you all about these players, and much more about Merle Fest too, but I gotta head for the house. I turn into a doctor at midnight. But I did want to tell you of the most important event of the day.

        Last night Boston’s Berklee School of Music conferred a Honarary Doctorate on Doc Watson. I can’t think of anyone who deserves it more, and I was very happy for him. As Doc has said, “Music is universal.” Doc brings people together with his guitar and that warm voice as well as any artist I know. My friend Wayne Benson said, “When Doc sings, I believe every word.”

        So do I. Congratulations to Doc; so well deserved.

Merle Fest 2009 Saturday and Sunday

April 27, 2009

        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.

Dr.  B