MerleFest 2014

I was invited to attend MerleFest 2014 with my father, Happy Traum to play a few sets with him and help out at the Homespun Learning Stage in the Mayes Pit. 

Before I left I borrowed a Calton Case (a super protective fiberglass guitar case) from my friend Teja Gerken. He told me that the case used to belong to our mutual friend Scott Nygaard, a world class guitarist in his own rite, and that the case had already travelled to MerleFest at least once. I was glad to see it return with my guitar inside it. Although the Calton Case was a beast to carry I felt good knowing my instrument was well protected after seeing the video "United Breaks Guitars" a few years ago!

I flew into Charlotte, North Carolina, from San Francisco, and had a few hours of down time while waiting for my father's flight from Albany, N.Y. Once my dad arrived we rented a swanky SUV and rolled out to the Blueridge Mountains foothills where the festival takes place, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina.

Coming from the drought-stricken state of California I was reminded of how green everything gets and the immediacy of the dense humidity in the south.

I spent about 12 years living south of the Mason Dixon Line first in Northern Virginia and later Savannah, Georgia, and knew what to expect. But being there again reminded me of how my understanding of Americana roots music was deepened profoundly by hearing the sounds of the south including the breezes through the trees and the sounds of bass-filled streams everywhere! The sight and smells of lush fauna and flora came rushing back to me. 

After stopping for "dinner" at a Starbucks, which was really about the coffee, my dad crashed out since we had an early start and I went over to see Alan Jackson play on the main stage. I was expecting a country show with "Chattahoochee" and other Jackson hits, but was pleasantly surprised to see a star-studded bluegrass band with an amazing talented young woman sitting in on mandolin named Sierra Hull. Don Rigsby was on backing vocals and Rob Ickes was on dobro. Jackson was so relaxed and humble and said he was grateful to be playing with a great bluegrass band, and to be able to pay a tribute to the music he loved listening to growing up.

Friday morning Happy and I got down to the Mayes Pit and played our set. It went by incredibly quickly but it's always a pleasure to play with him. There were some amazing performances that day including Rory Block, Roy Bookbinder and many others. 

Rory Block put on a great show as always and amazingly continues to improve every time I see her. Roy Bookbinder has the most interesting sense of time. He studied with Pink Anderson and others but has a style all his own.

Friday evening I saw Tim O'Brien and Daryl Scott, two of my favorites. Man alive, those guys put on one of my favorite sets. A perfect combination of loose and tight! After the show I got a chance to say hi to Tim and met Daryl for the first time and was doing my best to play it cool. I had become a fan of his music when I saw him play with Robert Plant and the Band of Joy, with Patti Griffin and Buddy Miller. I was glad that he was so nice and didn't spoil the image in my head of songwriter and performer who was as cool as his music.

After that I saw another great band the Old Crow Medicine Show. I hadn't had a chance to see them live before and they didn't disappoint! It was a great set and they burned it up. 

Saturday I got a chance to play with Happy again, this time at Roy Bookbinder's blues stage. With my jet lag somewhat worn away and a set already under our belts my dad and I played a great set. Poking around online I found a video of us playing Dylan's "Buckets of Rain" which can be seen here:

Saturday brought more great music including one of my favorites, the Sam Bush Band, that to no surprise threw down! They tore it up with traditional bluegrass and got way out on some jams that elevated the night to a new high.


Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder were great as always with Cody Kilby and Bryan Sutton scorching the strings on their dreadnaught guitars. 

The sleeper of the night for me was hearing the Steep Canyon Rangers. They are a band that has a great approach to traditional music and write really good songs. Although they may be known for their work with Steve Martin, this is a band that stands on their own merits and I would recommend checking out one of their shows if they come around.

On Saturday night I corralled Joe Kyle, Jr. and Warren Hood of the Waybacks and Dr. Banjo himself, Pete Wernick to play a tune for the Midnight Jam. It was a madhouse backstage and onstage, but what a treat to play with these guys and for a responsive audience.

Sunday came around and I had heard a lot of bass players picking their "root to fives" and more Lester Flatt guitar runs than in the past year, but with a day off to hang and watch music my dad and I rolled over to see the Kruger Brothers, Jens and Uli, on the Hillside Stage. With the mercury rising with the humidity and precious few shady spots we got our daily exercise climbing up the hill to hear these Swiss-born and raised musicians brought Southern American roots music to a new level of elegance. Their sense of timing and space floated up through the trees like they were born in the Blueridge Mountains. As a side note, they moved just outside Wilkesboro to Deep Gap, just up the road from the festival.

Closing the festival was my son's namesake, Merle Haggard. I have seen Hag before, but it is always a treat to see him sing "Silver Wings," "Big City" and "Okie From Muscogee." His old-school country approach of playing the songs as they were written in a no-frills way always reminds me that a great song doesn't need a lot of window dressing if it's a great song.

My final thoughts on MerleFest are about not seeing Doc Watson there. I don't want to diminish the impact of the music and the success of the festival, but somehow it was like looking at the New York City skyline without the World Trade Center towers standing there. Something big was missing. Doc was a force of nature and even though his presence was waning bit by bit over the years he was always a beacon. Something that told me I was on the right path and that I had chosen my guitar heroes wisely. Time passes and legends pass, but honoring their memory by carrying the torch further is what has kept the roots music I love around for generations. 

On the flight home to California where the bugs aren't as big and neither is the hair, I was able to make some notes on the festival and what inspired me. To me, the wonder and joy of music is that there is always someplace new to go whether you are a player or listener. 

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    James Denevr
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