Feast of friends

Nanci Griffith is a marvelously fitting last-minute addition to this year’s Merlefest: Her latest album, Other Voices Too (A Trip Back to Bountiful) (Elektra, 1998) — a sequel to her 1993 classic, Other Voices, Other Rooms — pays homage to both the music legends and the less-famous singer/songwriters who ignited her passion for roots music and helped light her way down a 15-album career path.

Named after the 1985 film A Trip to Bountiful — a heartbreaking movie about an elderly woman (Oscar winner Geraldine Page) who manages to revisit her childhood home despite constant antagonism from her family — Other Voices Too is not about Griffith. Though she lends her classic milk-and-honey vocal stylings to every track, she lets pals like Jimmie Dale Gilmore, Lucinda Williams, Jerry Jeff Walker and Steve Earle — among many others — shine equally. Showcasing an unusual alliance of covers — songs by Johnny Cash and Stephen Foster shack up with the work of relative unknowns like Texas songwriter Mickie Merkens — Other Voices Too is a tribute to roots music for its own sake, rather than a showy “Who’s Who” of the folk and country world.

In the same way, the annual springtime festival on the Wilkes Community College campus continues to bloom as a place where young and old, eager learner and laid-back listener, professional musician and picking novice, alike, can come to honor the memory of Doc Watson’s late son, Merle, by soaking up the lonesome strains of bluegrass.

Merlefest was created 12 years ago, two years after Merle’s death from a tractor accident.

“It started as a very small thing,” Watson recalled in a recent phone interview. “My friend and daughter came to me and said they wanted to put on a little concert for Merle’s friends … and they did, using the back of two flatbed trucks for a stage. And after that, it started to blossom.”

Despite the rudimentary accommodations, 4,000 people showed up. These days, the festival regularly draws more than 50,000 listeners, and its 13 stages showcase the world’s top bluegrass, folk and country acts (though this year’s addition of pop kings Hootie and the Blowfish is creating no small amount of controversy). Considered the Southeast’s premier acoustic-music festival, Merlefest has flourished like kudzu, entwining crowds of all stripes in its wake.

Watson admits that he never thought the festival would come to mean what it has to so many: “Nobody did. It was unbelievable, the way that it grew.”

A determined family atmosphere is largely responsible for the festival’s widespread appeal, he feels: “I had a little say in the beginning about the way it should be run, and we [still] try to make it as drug-and-alcohol-free as we can,” he acknowledges.

Last year, more than 1,000 volunteers helped cater to the tens of thousands of festivalgoers (it was, by several accounts, the best-attended Merlefest to date). Asked if he thinks the show will continue its spectacular growth, the bluegrass legend immediately replies, “It can’t. … There’s no more room down there to expand it.”

Doc and Merle Watson had been playing and recording together for nearly 20 years — picking up four Grammies along the way — when the accident happened. But Merle was just reaching his peak as a slide guitarist at that time, says Watson.

“We were just beginning to play together in a [new band] when he left us,” notes Watson.

Merle died mere days before Frets magazine named him the year’s best finger-picking guitarist in acoustic music. His memory is enlivened by the efforts of his still-grieving father and look-alike son, Richard, who regularly plays with his famous grandfather at the festival.

What might Merle say if he could witness this incredible, thousands-strong tribute?

“Honey, he would greatly appreciate it. Everyone who knew Merle loved him. With that gentle chuckle and smile he had, I’m sure he’d be thrilled to know what people had thought about him over the years. … Sometimes I think he does know.”

The 12th annual Merlefest runs April 29-May 2 on the grounds of the Wilkes Community College campus in Wilkesboro, N. C. This year’s lineup features Doc Watson, Lucinda Williams, Bela Fleck & The Flecktones, Steve Earle, Nanci Griffith, Hootie and the Blowfish, Donna the Buffalo, Earl Scruggs with family and friends, Ricky Scaggs, Guy Clark, Tony Rice, the Seldom Scene, and many more. Other festival highlights include picking competitions and the Chris Austin songwriting contest, plus a “Little Pickers'” area for young musicians. Proceeds from the Merlefest help fund the nationally-renowned Merle Watson Memorial Garden for the Senses. A variety of ticket options are available. For tickets and more info, call 800-343-7857 or visit the festival Web site at www.merlefest.org.

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