A Natural High In The Appalachians of North Carolina
DATELINE: June 27, 1970. Shepton Mallet, Somerset.
It all seems a little hazy now, but I can still recall and drag some detail from the fug-draped memory of the first big outdoor festival I attended
It ran for two solid days and was billed as the Bath Festival Of Blues and Progressive Music.
It seemed as if we danced non stop to everyone from John Mayall, Pink Floyd, Fairport Convention and Canned Heat to Johnny Winter, Jefferson Airplane, Led Zeppelin, Frank Zappa, Steppenwolf, The Moody Blues, The Byrds, Santana, Dr. John and Country Joe….all weekend
Camping under the stars without any tent, there were very serious priorities for the motley crew of weekend hippies from the Scottish Borders who shared the long drive down in a beat up old Austin van.
Without the expertise – or contacts – to capture any exotic substances, we made do instead with copious supplies of alcohol, including a dangerous locally-produced scrumpy for those who were really roughing it.
The eventual hangovers were epic.
Fast forward by forty years to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, one month earlier in the year.
Four days of pure Americana including everything from the softer underbelly of rock to country blues, with the emphasis mostly on Appalachian old-time mountain music or the best in Bluegrass right where most of the best stuff comes from.
That’s about the closest I’ll ever get to heaven, I said after the final night.
And guess what…?
There wasn’t any booze for miles around and I never saw a single party-goer stoned.
Yet everyone was blissfully happy and sporting just-happy-to-be-alive faces for the entire weekend.
The first European pioneers who settled the foothills of the Yadkin River must have felt its feel-good vibe too. Those early frontiersmen and women, many from Scotland and Ireland, christened the place Happy Valley.
The shock of learning the festival site was firmly declared an alcohol-free zone had just begun to settle down when I saw a bumper sticker in the great little town of North Wilkesboro, where there are many who can trace roots back to Scotland.
It made me smile and clicked the whole scenario into proper perspective.
“God made liquor,” it said, “to stop the Scots from taking over the world!”
So off we tramped to register on Thursday morning, fully prepared to have our bags checked out as we passed through the turnstiles.
MerleFest is held at the end of April/start of May each year, named after American folk icon Doc Watson’s son, Merle, a great guitar and banjo picker himself, who died tragically in a tractor accident when it overturned and pinned him underneath as he was working near his home, in 1965.
Musicians in the local community decided on the first anniversary of his death to roll a flatbed truck out and stage an impromptu musical celebration of his life.
From that grew what is now renowned up and down the length and breadth of America as the finest country/roots/bluegrass jamboree there is.
The festival site – and all of the activities to keep the crowds entertained – felt more like one of those great State Fairs which take place throughout the summer and autumn in the USA.
Over seventy eight thousand revellers poured through the turnstiles the year we first attended, and stayed for four whole days, listening to artistes such as Alison Krauss, Nickel Creek, Jerry Douglas, Alison Brown, Gillian Welch, Peter Rowan, Happy Traum, Tim O’Brien, and yes, Doc Watson and Earl Scruggs, to name only a few of those who entertained on thirteen different stages.
Lesser known names (although well-respected in their own parish), including old-time music makers, local bands, gospel and country blues old-timers are to be found doing their own thing or jamming with each other in smaller tents. The printed programme is crammed with every piece of useful information visitors need to maximise their time and lists an A-Z of the artistes.
There are great marquees selling every kind of food imaginable, all run by and raising funds for local groups and community organisations; craftsmen and women give demonstrations on everything from blacksmithing, basket and doll making to weaving, building rocking chairs and making musical instruments.
Facilities cater for everyone’s needs such as cash dispensers, telephones, toilets (which are sparklingly clean), and a ‘left property’ stall to store your camp chair overnight. There is even a tent set aside for those who wish to steal a few quiet moments and relax, complete with masseurs.
…just no beers for those thirsty menfolk.
The organisers are determined to make sure the event remains a fun weekend for all ages and that means bringing youngsters along to let them soak up the great music and happy atmosphere without the threat of drunks making a nuisance of themselves.
Know what? Everyone you meet is smiling broadly, just high on life itself. It’s the most brilliant and infectious atmosphere I have ever experienced anywhere in all these years of attending big outdoor music events.
The Sunday morning session on a stage specially erected down by the creek lays on authentic stand-up-and-join-in gospel with some of the best-known exponents of the genre inducing full participation from the big crowd. You may find stars such as Gillian Welch wandering around freely, talking to fans and contributing to the good-time feel.
She first came to the fore here when she won the songwriters’ contest and now considers it to be the premier event of its kind anywhere in the world.
“Nothing beats MerleFest,” she told me.
“If they didn’t book us to play here, we’d probably still come along for the ride.”
If that sounds as if she enjoys herself, that was confirmed by her late arrival on Sunday lunchtime for her last concert of the weekend.
“We had a bit of a session,” she explained to the crowd.
“The midnight jam lasted until six this morning.”
…and here’s a hot tip for those who opt for self-drive: Once in the heart of western North Carolina, be sure to tune in to WNCW 88.7 for the very best musical experience outside of that MerleFest site! Try to catch the one and only Laura Boosinger in action. There is loads of great information on the Blue Ridge Music Trails of North Carolina here.