By Mark Kemp
WILKESBORO, N.C. — “Holy Ghost moment.”
Those words came from the mouth of venerable mandolin player Ricky Skaggs as he walked off the Doc & Merle Watson Theatre stage at Merlefest Friday night, eyes closed and in a near trance, having just played a smoking set with the legendary Dr. Ralph Stanley.
The performance came in a weekend of musical highs during the 27th year of the folk-and-bluegrass festival which began modestly in 1988, when a group of famous musician friends—Doc Watson, Earl Scruggs, Tony Rice, Chet Atkins, John Haratford, Mark O’Conner, Jerry Douglas, and others—played a tribute to Watson’s recently deceased son Merle, who had died tragically in a tractor accident. In the years since, many of the most important names in folk and bluegrass have played the festival, and many other stars have been born there, including the Avett Brothers and–a highlight of this year–Old Crow Medicine Show.
Skaggs, standing backstage after his meeting with Stanley, expanded on the remark he’d made: “How many times will I have that opportunity?,” he asked. “It was one of those moments that may not ever happen again.” He was alluding to Stanley’s advanced age (87), and to the numerous losses the country and bluegrass world has experienced in the past few years, including the 2012 deaths of Merlefest patriarch Doc Watson and banjo pioneer Earl Scruggs, and more recently, Arthur Smith and George Shuffler.
Other highlights at this year’s Merlefest included great performances on the big stage from the Carolina Chocolate Drops, Old Crow, Sam Bush and others, including a rare bluegrass set from country singer Alan Jackson. But most of the action happened on the grounds, where amateurs jammed around old railroad cars and in grassy areas of the Wilkes Community College campus, and where bands that didn’t make it on the Watson stage played in the 11 other venues including auditoriums, tents, and an impressive hillside stage that drew thousands.
The list of acts this year seemed endless: cosmic cowboy Peter Rowan, jamgrassers the Waybacks, singer-songwriter Jim Lauderdale, bluegrass-folk fusion band the Duhks, legendary Dobro player Tut Taylor, and many others, including Keller Williams, Della Mae, Steep Canyon Rangers, Todd Snider, Tim O’Brien & Darrell Scott, and the Kruger Brothers. The afternoons were filled with guitar workshops from veterans such as the country-blues and folksinger-guitarist Happy Traum, as well as a “Little Pickers” stage where young prodigies showed off their licks. And there were vendors galore selling everything from vegan smoothies to Martin guitars.
Check out Acoustic Guitar’s Facebook page for galleries full of colorful photographs from the weekend, and look for video footage of a few performances.