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.