Electrified cats and dogs fell relentlessly across Roanoke Valley as I made my way into to North Carolina. As I turned off I-77, west towards Wilksboro, the skies started to clear and the rain disappeared. The south in the spring.
There are really only two stages operating on Thursday — the main Watson Stage where all the big acts play and the small Cabin Stage that is just off the main stage.The Dance Tent and Plaza Open Mic tent will have music today also, but most of the action is on the main festival grounds. The Cabin Stage provides music between acts on the Watson Stage. I know it's not the other way around due to the fact you can hear them sound-checking on the Watson Stage as the smaller stage acts are doing their sets. A note to festival organizers — that sucks.
The Watson Stage broke the silence at 3 p.m. sharp with the festival opening act, a five-piece from Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, called The Deep Dark Woods. There are a fair number of Canadian acts at MerleFest. I like to think this is due to the Canadian governments dedication to supporting Canadian artists and helping them to further careers. That's a nice touch. Commies.
The Deep Dark Woods is an Alternative Country/Roots Rock/Americana band (what's it called these days? Fuck if I know) that has a really together and dark soulful sound somewhat reminiscent of Cincinnati's own The Hiders. Two guitars, keyboard, drums and the best bass player since Paul Cavins of Throneberry hung it up to play drums. Simple, unadorned, muted flats on a P-bass. My goodness, he alone was worth the effort. The songwriting was vital, evocative and never embarrassing and the dual Gretsch hollowbodies through Ampeg amps was a pretty unique and, for me, unheard sound. They weren't breaking any ground, sound-wise, just good songwriting presented exceptionally well and, in these genres, that's pretty much the goal.
Jubal's Kin took the Cabin Stage immediately following The Deep Dark Woods. This Florida based brother and sister duo is what I like about finding new music. Gailanne Amundsen and her brother Roger play with passion and commitment. Gailanne tore through some fiddle music to start off the set and then effortlessly moved to the frailing banjo and tore it up, too. Close familial harmonies and incredibly dynamic arrangements on songs that can only get better as they mature as performers. Incredible talent coupled with the right instincts. Unfortunately they started hitting the drums on the main stage for the next act; fortunately for me, Jubal's Kin (pictured below) has three appearances over the MerleFest weekend, so I moved on knowing I'll have better opportunities to see them in less distracting circumstances. That's one of the cool things about MerleFest — a lot of the acts have two, three or four sets over the span of the festival in a variety stages.
I wandered over to the Heritage Tent to see what my favorite potter, James Peter 'Pete' McWhirter, has for sale. I met Pete and his wife Kim last year. My sister is also an exhibitor in the Heritage Tent and, along with spewing the sights and sounds for you, I help her out by affording her breaks to have meals, use the bathroom, catch a band, etc.
Pete makes the most amazing jugs in a variety of themes. My wife and I are deeply in love with his Chick Jugs — jugs inspired both by his neighbor chickens in Burnsville, NC, and something you might find corn liquor in. He also makes musician jugs — Dom Flemons of the Carolina Chocolate Drops plays one — and outrageous face jugs. Pete is the second generation potter and owner of McWhirter Pottery. His mom ended up in Celo, NC, with an art degree in hand, singing with various folks, met his father, a native of North Georgia who had spent some time marching with MLK, and Mom started McWhirter pottery making everyday useful objects — dinnerware, vases, etc.
Pete carries on both the tradition of throwing pots as well as singing with his wife Kim in the western NC band He Said, She Said. Kim will be appearing Sunday at Merle Fest in the Traditional Tent Stage for a program entitled "Women Who Sing Traditional Music."
While hanging around Pete's booth, I met Buell, the man who claims to be responsible for MerleFest being more then a one-off event organized 25 years ago to raise money for a horticulture project at Wilkes Community College. Buell was running the video for the first event. They were using the NC-PBS truck with a Betacam machine that happened to have four XLR ins. While standing behind the camera near the sound board, the engineer asked him if he would like an audio board feed into his Betacam machine. Using this video along with some footage from the local TV station and more audio from a local radio station, he weaved together a video of the first event and sold Wilkes Community College on its production. This video sold over 5000 copies and created a demand that enabled the next MerleFest. I heard some great 1988 MerleFest stories from both Buell and Pete (Pete was at the first one also) and got directions to get my free "I Love John Hartford" button. Who doesn't love John Hartford?
Up later this eve on the big stage is Vince Gill. I suppose he's pretty good. I'll be heading to the Dance Tent to catch Blind Chocolate and the Milk Sheiks. I saw this Asheville, NC, based band last year at the recommendation of the Crossville, Tn. Huminaires drummer Joshua Hall and they were pretty damn good. Right now, it's time to feed the beast. More on Blind Chocolate in the morning.