Years back, in a pathetic display of petulance, I swore off Merlefest.
Oh I had always had a great time at the four-day wall-to-wall roots festival just up Highway 421 in North Wilkesboro. Who doesn’t? Music has magical properties, which makes Merlefest one of the most magical extended weekends of the year.
But when my heart said go, my pride said no. I had entered the songwriting contest so many times with great hopes, only to have those hopes dashed into fractured 16th and 32nd notes. With each passing rejection I turned ever more bitter.
I even made the sojourn one April with the expressed purpose of listening to all the songs that beat mine. I perched alone above the Hillside Stage as one winner after another promenaded up on stage to sing their songs, which, as I was forced to admit, were pretty good after all.
The one category that seemed, to me, to have the weakest entries was Gospel. So I decided then to enter a Gospel song. And for someone who had drifted away from the Methodist Church once I left home for college, that required a bit of research.
And when that song, The Long And Rugged Road, also failed to scratch the next spring, I took it personal. That’s when I decided Merlefest would just have to get along without me.
Judging from all I heard from all the great friends who went year after year, Merlefest got along pretty good.
So finally this year I swallowed my old foolish pride. My long-time pal Doug Roberts of the Ski and Tennis Station here in Winston had some VIP tickets, and two people I couldn’t do this life thing without – Tybee, my bride of 36 years and Lenox Rawlings, my closest compadre over my 45 years in the sportswriting business – were all fired up for the occasion.
What really got me out the door and up 421 though was a chance to see one of my heroes, Buddy Miller, who was playing Saturday night with Jim Lauderdale and the North Mississippi All-Stars. Lenox and I had caught a show by Buddy and his wife Julie about 10 or so years ago in the Library of Congress Auditorium in D.C, and I came away convinced the man is music personified.
Also, I listen religiously (that word again) to the Buddy and Jim Show on Sirius Radio, which I have to say is radio at its very best.
Knowing that Buddy and Jim were going to close the show at 9:30, we didn’t make the scene until early afternoon. Didn’t want to burn out, and all that.
I can’t say I enjoyed being in such a crowd, which was even bigger than I remembered it. And not all the music I heard was the kind I would rush out and buy.
But all in all we had the time of our lives. It’s a really beautiful event, organized and pulled off as well as possible for a show involving that many people. And I wasn’t surprised when I bumped into some folks I make music with here around Winston.
The high points soared into a sunny spring mountain sky.
I was well-aware of Rhiannon Giddens, and had even caught a show (with Lenox) at the Muddy Creek Music Hall featuring Don Flemons, her former band mate with the Carolina Chocolate Drops. If you ever get the opportunity to see Don Flemons, you’ll do yourself a disservice by passing it by.
But I wasn’t prepared for how monstrous Rhiannon’s talents are. It’s so gratifying to see a gifted artist doing so well what he or she was demonstrably put on this planet to do. And she’s one of us, hailing from nearby Greensboro, which I found to be especially cool.
April nights get chilly in North Wilkesboro, but we carried coats. And as the full moon rose over Merlefest, Buddy and Jim launched into a tight, spirited set. You get the feeling from watching folks like Buddy and Jim, not to mention Luther and Cody Dickenson of the North Mississippi All-Stars, that it’s really not about the money or the fame.
It’s about making music the way it was meant to be made.
My day was really made though when late in the set, everyone left the stage except Buddy and Luther. That’s when Buddy played my favorite song of his, Wide Wide River to Cross. If I had traveled to Merlefest for nothing more than that moment, it would have been well worth the effort.
Pride is probably essential to a happy human existence. Without it, we wouldn’t have the requisite gumption to even get out of bed, much less do what we’re here to do.
But as I was reminded this weekend, it sure can get in the way of a great time. My only complaint is that as hard as I looked, I never saw a banner exclaiming “Welcome Back Country Dan.’’