Coming home

Before I sleep

John Cowan’s self-titled CD (Sugar Hill Records, 2000) is a soulful tumult of traditional genres. The musician, who appears Friday and Saturday at this year’s Merlefest, has traveled a mighty long road since 1974, when he first pulled up to Courtney Johnson’s house to audition as bass player for the seminal band New Grass Revival.

Today, Cowan’s sound reflects a man who truly appreciates coming home.

In his music, Cowan has raised a faithful child, nurturing it lovingly — and the resulting art rings with moving maturity. From the energetic “Roll Away the Stone” to the soulful “Nothin’ But the Blues” to the thoughtful “Last Summer Rose,” he chooses diverse experiences, handing them back to the listener with the gentleness and vivaciousness that are his hallmark.

A veteran of Everyday People and the Doobie Brothers, as well as New Grass Revival, Cowan is now the center of a self-named band, and he seems earnestly content with this latest collaboration.

“I’m satisfied,” he notes. “I think we found a way to put it all in one thing, and it makes sense. I don’t think it’s scattered. … I think its focus is its diversity. … For me, it’s been a long, bizarre journey, and I finally kinda came back home.”

Despite this seasoned effort, Cowan responds with the decidedly youthful, “I’m completely stoked,” when asked how he feels about his upcoming shows at Merlefest. This guy harbors a deep desire to connect with his audience in a meaningful way, infusing them with a message of tolerance and mutual understanding.

“I think that’s art’s job, to open people up emotionally,” he muses, adding, “Music is a means to an end. The bigger picture is just our hearts and humanity, and where we can go as a culture.” With this latest disc, Cowan presents an excellent portrait of the human heart, at times bold and mighty, at times uncertain, as it pauses inevitably to ponder sorrow.

Feels like the first time

Doc Watson is calling his people home again. And oh, what a homecoming the 13th annual Merlefest promises to be. Willie Nelson (performing Thursday) will lend his peerless scofflaw pipes to the Wilkesboro-based event this year, alongside such ambassadors of both new and old-school bluegrass as Sam Bush (performing Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and Ralph Stanley (Sunday only, with his Clinch Mountain Boys). The much-needed woman’s touch comes courtesy of Gillian Welch (Friday, Saturday and Sunday), Nanci Griffith (Friday), Maura O’Connell, Laura Love and Natalie MacMaster, among others. Further seasoning things will be father-and-son outfit John and Jamie Hartford (plus, of course, another family act — Doc with his grandson, Richard, performing all four days); and then there are the ubiquitious bearers of the jam-band torch, including smooth-moving upstarts like Donna the Buffalo (Friday, Saturday and Sunday) and String Cheese Incident (Thursday and Friday) — plus some 75 other acts, among them such regional favorites as The Freight Hoppers and Acoustic Syndicate.

Despite its size, this four-day tribute to Americana music traditionally welcomes its fans as much as its artists. Merlefest began in late April 1988 on the stage of Wilkes Community College’s John A. Walker Center (as well as two flatbed trucks). That first year, the benefit — founded in memory of the legendary flatpicker’s son, Merle, who died in a tractor accident in 1985 — pulled in a generous crowd of 4,000. By 1999, that number had swelled to 63,000 (the festival leaves a $9 million impression on the local economy, and funnels a sizable chunk of proceeds into area nonprofit agencies).

This year, though, the impact could be global. Ever expanding to sate the swelling ranks of Americana-music fans, Merlefest will now be broadcast on the Web, for the first time. The Webcast will be produced and hosted by the Acoustic Box Office, a pay-per-view service. Those who just want information or tickets can log onto free of charge, of course. It’s a thorough — though thankfully not too flashy — site that offers browsers the option of listening to sound clips. Webmaster Jim Barrow, from his unique insider’s position, reports that ticket sales are up an additional 21 percent this year, and further mentions that the site gets some 8,000-10,000 hits per week — with peaks of 200,000 around festival time.

One of Merlefest’s attractions has always been a kind of sheltering vibe, and with this many hits, it seems that folks’ wish to remain in the fold is strong even when the stage itself is silent.

“It’s the biggest festival of its kind in the Southeast,” notes media maven Penny Parsons, one of hundreds who toil to make sure the giant picking party maintains that status.

But at the center of it all remains the deeper knowledge that this now-blockbuster event was founded on a father’s bitter loss. Today, there’s no telling what famous faces you might see at Merlefest. And yet, something of the initial spirit that makes the whole thing like one big communal hug is still there, fostering unlikely — and often unforgettable — alliances.

“You never know who you are going to see playing together on the stage,” says Parsons.

“It might be a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

Merlefest runs Thursday, April 27 through Sunday, April 30 on the campus of Wilkesboro Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C. A variety of ticket packages are still available — including one-day passes and weekend-only passes — by calling 1-800-343-7857 (336-838-6267 outside the U.S.) weekdays from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Tickets are also available by fax (336-838-6277) or by mail (Merlefest, P.O. Box 1299, Wilkesboro, N.C., 28697). Interested in volunteering? Call (336) 838-6292.

The festival will celebrate the diversity of the incredibly popular Americana genre with many special sessions. Each evening the Watson stage features a different gathering of artists: Friday evening boasts the All Women’s Jam session; Saturday features a tribute, “My Friend Merle”; and Sunday closes with “A Salute to the Music of John Hartford,” with many other events planned (and unplanned) in between.

In addition to the gathering of artists, contests aplenty will surely spur brilliant picking among participants. On Thursday, The Merlefest Mandolin Contest is held. On Friday, attendees will be doubly treated with The Merle Watson Banjo Contest and the Doc Watson Guitar Championship. Registration takes place 90 minutes before each contest.

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