My article in the last newsletter dealt with many of the local venues for playing or listening to Folk/Old Time/Bluegrass/Singer-Songwriter (FOBS) music, with “local” loosely defined as within about a half hour drive of High Cove. It would seem logical, then, to continue with music venues in the “area”, meaning outside the local region, but within a few hours of High Cove.
However, it’s Spring, and with Spring comes the start of the Appalachian festival season, so i have decided to devote this article to some of the major music festivals of the area. Without doubt, the premier music festival of the area, and indeed one of the most significant music festivals in the world is MerleFest.
MerleFest – April 25-28, 2013
MerleFest began in 1988 as a tribute to Doc Watson’s son Merle, an outstanding musician in his own right with a wide range of musical interests, who died in a tractor accident. Merle had toured with Doc for many years, and had met and befriended many of the outstanding acoustic musicians in the US. Consequently, when the call went out for musicians to gather on the campus of Wilkes Community College to celebrate Merle’s life, many came and played gratis as a tribute to Merle and Doc. Among the outstanding performers were David Holt, John Hartford, Chet Atkins, Tony Rice, Peter Rowan, Newgrass Revival (Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, John Cowan, Pat Flynn), Jerry Douglas, Grandpa Jones, George Hamilton IV. Official performances were held in an auditorium on campus and outside, using a flat bed trailer as the stage, but there was a good bit of informal jamming as well.
With passing years even more outstanding musicians have come to the festival each year – over 100 scheduled for 2013. (They’re paid now, of course.) MerleFest has grown to four days – Thursday through Sunday – and the number of stages is now 13. With Doc’s death this past year, it will enter a new era. We’re looking forward to memorable tributes to both Doc and Merle this year.
The breadth of the music and musicians is such that it is hard to know where to start to try to describe this festival. We had heard about it in Missouri, so when we moved to Western North Carolina in 2008, we determined that we would give 2009 MerleFest tickets as a Christmas present to ourselves that year. We camped out (best to reserve early) and attended three of the four days. One of my strongest memories of that year is watching one group after another perform foot stomping music, and then bring out Sam Bush as a special guest performer. This happened repeatedly, not only on the main (Watson) stage, but also on many of the other stages at the festival. It became such a regular event that when Sam Bush and his band did their own headliner perfomance one evening at the Watson stage, i fully expected him to bring himself on stage as a special guest.
Having been only so-so roots and bluegrass music fans prior to moving to North Carolina, we had never seen Sam Bush before. We certainly got an eyeful and earful of him that year, but it wasn’t too much. He is an incredibly talented and high energy performer, best known as a mandolin player, but an outstanding fiddler as well. He is one of the few musicians who has been at every MerleFest from the beginning. It was thrilling watching him and his fellow band members become so involved in the music as they played off each other.
My other strongest memory of our first MerleFest is attending the “Album Hour”, presented annually by California band, the Waybacks. MerleFest has always been touted as “Traditional Plus” in its musical fare, due to Merle and Doc’s eclectic musical tastes. But one year the Waybacks decided to push the envelope by playing classic rock music with their mix of traditional acoustic and electrical instruments. Their performance was received with such enthusiasm that they went way over time because the crowd insisted that they play encore after encore. The next year (2008) they formalized their classic rock performance by playing every song, in order, on Led Zeppelin II. Every year since then they have played at the Hillside Stage the songs of a complete classic rock album. In 2009, our first year at MerleFest, the album was the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers. The next year, it was the Beatles’ Abbey Road. Then, the Allman Brothers’ Eat a Peach, followed the next year by Jimi Hendrix’s Purple Haze. For each album they invite other MerleFest performers to join them. For example, Emily Lou Harris came out and sang “Wild Horses” in our first year there.
The choice of album for each year is a closely guarded secret. Currently the Waybacks are running a contest to guess the album using a few clues that are supplied on their Web site. My knowledge of rock trivia is pretty minimal, so i won’t be entering the contest, but you can be sure that Jane and i will be in the audience for the Hillside Album Hour this year.
The lineup of performers for 2013 is amazing. Check out the website for the complete listing and schedule by day. Headliners include Leon Russell, the Charlie Daniels Band, the Del McCoury Band, the Preservation Hall Jazz Band, Warren Haynes and Government Mule, the Sam Bush Band, the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, and the Avett Brothers. The Kruger Brothers (one of our favorite groups) will be playing The Appalachian Concerto, penned by banjo player Jens Kruger as one of several performances. Other acts we have seen and enjoyed (in no particular order) are Jerry Douglas, Wayne Henderson, the Greencards, Scythian, David Holt, Red Molly, Chris Smither, and the Steep Canyon Rangers. That just scratches the surface. There are many more scheduled; we look forward to becoming acquainted with some of them.
The alcohol-free festival is held on the campus of Wilkes Community College. Parking near the campus is very limited and very expensive, but various Boy Scout troops in the area run shuttle buses from early in the morning until late at night to and from the outlying free parking areas. Check the website at merlefest.org for further information.
Grandfather Mountain Highland Games – July 11-14, 2013
The other world class festival in our area is the Grandfather Mountain Highland Games (GMHG). The 2013 celebration will mark the 58th year, and through the years they have come to rival even those held in Edinburgh. For those who have never been to highland games, they feature athletic events, musical and dance competitions, sheep dog demonstrations, and pomp – massed pipe and drum bands and parading of the clans.
In addition to the usual Scottish athletic competitions (such as the caber toss, the hammer throw, weight throw, and the sheaf toss), there are a variety of other athletic events. These include clan tug-o-wars, a 5K run and a bicycle race to the top of Grandfather mountain, a marathon, kilted mile and quarter-mile runs, and highland wrestling. The last events are distinguished by the fact that the competitors are required to wear kilts. There are also some sanctioned regular track & field events held during the three days.
The piping competitions at GMHG are particularly noteworthy for afficionados, with Amateur I-IV and Open (professional) grades. Within these grades are one or more categories of March, Strathspey & Reel, Hornpipe & Jig, 6/8 March, and Piobaireachd. The last is the traditional Scottish classical music for the pipes, usually played by only the best pipers. Drumming competitions fall into similar categories. In addition, there are specific divisions for tenor drum competitors.
The Atlantic International Championships at GMHG, one of five highland dancing championships held in the US, are sanctioned by the Scottish Official Board of Highland Dancing. The championship is held over four specific dances, with each competitor dancing the sequence of steps laid down by the Board for the calendar year.
As further indication of the quality and breadth of the Grandfather Mountain Games in comparison to typical highland games that are found in many places in the world, there are competitions and workshops for Scottish fiddling, harp, Gaelic singing, and the Lochaber Trump. “Trump” is an English corruption of the Scots Gaelic “tromb”. Around here it’s commonly called the jaw harp. The Scots in Lochaber were particularly skilled in playing it – hence the name.
Aside from the competitions, GMHG hosts a variety of Celtic or Celtic-inspired music. In the Groves, a wooded area containing three stages off to the side of the athletic field, bands play music ranging from “tribal to traditional, rock to ballad, and a few interesting variations on the Celtic theme.” Grove #1 is reserved for traditional Celtic sounds, Grove #2 is hosts Celtic Rock, and Grove #3 features Celtic music with a strong bluegrass influence. In the evenings the bands come together for rollicking concerts – a Celtic Jam on Friday night, and a Celtic Rock Concert on Saturday night.
Parking is located at the foot of the mountain, with shuttle buses running to and from the meadow where the games and concerts are held. You can learn more at the website, gmhg.org.
Lake Eden Arts Festival – May 9-12 & October 17-20, 2013
I tend to think of LEAF as a mini MerleFest with more of an international flavor. It takes place twice a year on the Lake Eden campus of the now defunct Black Mountain College. Like MerleFest, there are multiple stages and many performing groups, though both are on a smaller scale. On the other hand, with maximum attendance limits and an on-site campground that is almost always full, LEAF has a more intimate feel than its big brother. Moreover, it significantly extends the “traditional plus” model of MerleFest’s music with a good proportion of international musicians and US groups that play music influenced by various world cultures.
I find it difficult to adequately describe the festival. So, to give you a flavor of the breadth of music scheduled for May, i’ll just list some of the bands coming, with brief descriptions of their music drawn from the LEAF website.
Peter Rowan Bluegrass Band – traditional and original bluegrass music Abigail Washburn – clawhammer banjo combining “venerable folk elements with far-flung sounds” (Don’t be surprised if husband Béla Fleck shows up to play with her.)
Steel Pulse – Grammy award-winnng reggae band Ozomatil – “urban-latino-and-beyond collision of hip hop and salsa, …, samba and funk, …, East LA R&B and New Orleans second line, Jamaican ragga and Indian raga”Solas – Celtic band mixing “fire tested tradition and contemporarinnovation”
M C Yogi – “thunderous bass, infectious break beats, and stunning visual effects”
Lizz Wright – “sultry R&B performance that’s divinely layered in gospel and jazz Ben Solle – cello playing that creates a “unique mix of folk, bluegrass, jazz, and R&B Elixir – high energy dance band that weaves “traditional and original Irish, French Canadian, and New England tunes” with “dixieland horn riffs, transcendent harmonies, playful improvisations, and rock, swing, and reggae rhythms”
Honey Island Swamp Band – “bayou Americana”
Dirk Powell Band – “powerful Appalachian music”
The Broadcast – powerhouse band, inspired by classic rock, whose lead singer has been compared to Grace Slick and Tina Turner
Como Mamas – incredible gospel singing
Matuto – “drawing on Brazil’s folkloric rhythms” and “deep Americana”
Attendance at LEAF is limited, and both Spring and Fall versions are often sold out, so if you plan on going, get your tickets early. Parking on-site is limited to those camping at the festival; shuttle buses are provided for others. See the website, theleaf.org, for more information.
Bele Chere Festival – July 26-28, 2013
“Bele Chere” supposedly means “beautiful living” in some Scottish dialect (though it certainly looks like it got to Scotland via France). Held in downtown Asheville since 1979, it is billed as the largest free music and arts street festival in the Southeast. It is a busy time in Asheville – not a time when you should try to drive around, as a number of key streets are blocked off for the many thousands of fans walking around from stage to stage. Fortunately, it’s not necessary as inexpensive (in comparison to parking prices) shuttles from outlying areas run every 20 minutes.
The festival now continues for two and a half days, officially starting around 5:00p on Friday and continuing through about 6:00p on Sunday. The schedule and line up of bands have not yet been released for 2013. However, in 2012 there were four main stages, with bands changing every hour to an hour and a half.
Although the music is not as eclectic as that at LEAF (few things are), you can hear some great bands and individual performers here. The year we lived in Asheville we went downtown on the Saturday of the festival and saw Balsam Range for the first time (other than at the Fiddling Pig barbecue restaurant) – prior to their rise to fame in the national bluegrass circuit. It was there i recognized the apparent requirement for bluegrass bands that the biggest guy on the stage play the
mandolin. (Having the smallest guy play the double bass is not absolutely essential, but is fairly common.) We also heard and enjoyed Laura Blackley, and a variety of other good musicians whom i have unfortunately forgotten now.
Like LEAF, the festival is family-friendly. One of my memories is of seeing people dancing in the street, including young boys with their mothers or grandmothers, oblivious of the fact that in most urban areas that’s just not considered cool. Interactive performances abound. In addition, you can find ballroom or swing dancing, clogging, and Asheville’s famous drum circle. There are a variety of street entertainers – individual musicians, or jugglers, or …. Visit the downtown Arts Park as well as other areas to see art and crafts by outstanding area and regional artists working in metal, wood, ceramics, fabric, paint, photography. There’s a lot going on at Bele Chere. For more up-to-date information visit the website, belecherefestival.com .
Some Other Area Festivals
I’ve listed below a number of festivals in the area that feature FOBS music, roughly in chronological order. I have not yet attended most of these, and so cannot say anything trustworthy about them. The exceptions are the High Cove Music Fest (superb 🙂 and the two festivals held in Burnsville (both small, but enjoyable).
French Broad River Festival – Hot Springs, May 3-5, 2013 frenchbroadriverfestival.com
Bluff Mountain Festival – Hot Springs, June 1, 2013 madisoncountyarts.com
Green Swan Music Fest – Swannanoa, June 1, 2013 greenswanfest.org
Red, White, and Bluegrass Festival – Morganton, June 30 – July 4, 2013 redwhiteandbluegrassfestival.com
Shindig on the Green – Asheville; June 29; July 6, 13, 20; August 10, 17, 24, 31 folkheritage.org
Mountain Dance and Folk Festival – Asheville, August 2-4, 2013 folkheritage.org/75thannua.htm
Ola Belle Reed Music Festival – Lansing, August 9-11, 2013 olabellefest.com
High Cove Music Festival – near Burnsville, August 2013 highcove.com
Railroad Earth’s Music on the Mountaintop – near Boone, August 2013 musiconthemountaintop.com
Bristol Rhythm and Roots Reunion – Bristol, TN; September 20-22, 2013 bristolrhythm.com
Bascom Lamar Lunsford Festival – Mars Hill, October 5, 2013 lunsfordfestival.com
Music in the Mountains – Burnsville, October 2013 toeriverarts.org/community-programs/music-in-the-mountains-folk-festival
RiddleFest – Burnsville, February 2014 tvgnc.org
Appalachian State Old Time Fiddlers Convention – Boone, February 2014 fiddle.apps.appstate.edu