MerleFest: Celebrating Bluegrass Music Since 1988

The MerleFest in North Carolina is one of the biggest bluegrass events in the country. Here's a look back at the 1994 festival.

| February/March 1995

  • bluegrass
    The MerleFest invites participation, so bring your banjo or guitar!

  • bluegrass

At the center of this makeshift stage, Peter Temple belts out the mournful lyrics in his reedy tenor, a small-town Roy Acuff in the midst of his own Grand Ol’ Opry. He wears cowboy boots, khaki pants, faded work shirt, and the puckish expression of a country doctor who has seen just about everything. He picks his trademark lead on an old Martin guitar so worn and battered that the pick guard fell of years ago. He says it sounds better that ways.

If my childhood had a musical accompaniment, it came from the porch of Dr. Peter Temple. Every Wednesday night for the past 25 years, local legends and aspiring kids have gathered at his house in Tarboro, North Carolina, to pay homage to music as rooted to the Edgecombe County soil as the pines. Farmers and foresters, mechanics and cabinetmakers, retirees and college students, and all five of Peter's children have graced that stage. The faces change, the instruments come and go, but the music remains the same.

I am an alumnus of that porch, a graduate of the Peter Temple school of bluegrass pickers. Like dozens of kids that wove in and out of that sphere, I started at the far end of the porch, playing softly to hide my mistakes, while studying Peter's chord changes intently. As I improved, I graduated to the outer circle and finally to an equal spot on the swing or a chair where I could pick a lead or sing harmony on a verse. Even though I earned my place on the porch more than a decade ago, my heart still jumps when Peter yells, "Pick us one, Joel," and for a fleeting second I am that shy adolescent trying to piece together the melody before those stony adult faces marking time with the music.

Tonight an added spark infuses the air. Dennis Coker hammers his five-string banjo as if he were revving an engine at the Chevrolet dealership where he manages the shop. Roger Sauerborn, owner and operator of the Pretty Good Sand Company, stays with him on a teardrop mandolin and sings high harmony. Between songs they join Peter in a discussion of provisions, driving times, the rendezvous. It's the last week in April you see, and tomorrow they will pack up instruments, folding chairs, and enough food to choke an army and make their annual pilgrimage to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, for one of the best acoustic music events in the country: the Merle Watson Memorial Festival.

Tony and Wyatt Rice, the hottest "newgrass" guitar-picking brothers in the country. Emmylou Harris has closed every Watson festival so far, and J.D. Crowe, who pushed bluegrass to new levels of innovation 1970's.

The Watson Festival is a thriving remnant of the folk renaissance of the 1960s, when shows from Newport, Rhode Island, to Berkeley, California, helped millions of Americans rediscover their musical roots. On one of these stages, at the 1963 Newport Folk Festival, a 41-year-old blind guitar player from the North Carolina mountains sat down and began to play. He had wavy, dark hair then, a gentle laugh, and a rich, warm baritone that enveloped his audience like a grandfather's hug. He sang songs about lost lives and lost loves, murderers and muskrats, shady groves and blackberry blossoms, bringing the sounds of Appalachia to the North. The performance catapulted Arthel "Doc" Watson to the forefront of the folk revival where he has remained ever since.


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