Doc's legacy center stage at MerleFest
by Frank Ruggiero
MerleFest, the annual four-day music festival in Wilkesboro, held April 25 to 28, had been hosted by Deep Gap native and flat-picking legend Doc Watson.
When Watson died in May 2012, longtime fans of the festival knew 2013's would be a bittersweet occasion.
"I will feel it," said Sam Bush, an award-winning musician and longtime friend of Watson's, in a recent interview. "I think we're going to feel Doc's presence, and we may be feeling him more than in years past."
Volunteer Ken Crouse agrees.
Crouse has attended 26 MerleFests, during which he leads nature hikes through the woods surrounding Wilkes Community College, where the festival is held. During those hikes, he said, the sounds of nature seem to integrate seamlessly with those from the stage.
"The birds are joining in," Crouse said, "and as you get a little farther away from the stage, you can hear how nature resonates with the music."
Despite Watson's absence, the nature of his music still resonates with the crowd.
"His energy was such an important part of whole scene, and even though his presence is still here, we're going to miss him," Crouse said. "The thing that always struck me about Doc is he was the real deal. He was the same if it was just you and him or some famous musician. He had a special gift, but his greatest gift was his humility."
Charlie Daniels, fiddler extraordinaire and virtuoso of country and Southern rock, agrees.
"I don't know of a musician that's more respected among his peers than Doc Watson was," he said.
Although Daniels is a native of North Carolina, this year's MerleFest marks his first.
"This particular festival ... is kind of the downhome thing, kind of a Carolina, buttermilk and cornbread type of deal," Daniels said. "That's where I come from. I call myself a redneck hillbilly. For all you folks that call me a redneck and a hillbilly, I have two words: thank you. That's the way I feel. Those are not derogatory words to me."
Along with the downhome feeling of MerleFest, Daniels said he signed on to play because of his admiration for Watson.
"There's a lot of festivals that go on, but this one has a real special feel to the people, bands and musicians," he said. "I wish I was able to be here when Doc was here. Everybody here will remember him."
Dale Meyer, guitarist for Americana band The ToneBlazers, is one of them, saying that all involved seem to be appreciative of Watson's intangible contributions.
"Folks seem to have a sense of respect for what actually has transpired because of his family and his talent," he said.
It's a talent Meyer got to appreciate firsthand.
"On two separate occasions, I got to go to Doc's house and just sit there and pick," Meyer said. "We were playing a song, called 'The Panhandle Rag.' I took a solo on it, he took one, and he said, 'Dale, play it again, just like you did before; I really liked that.'"
How did Meyer react?
"I lost my place," he said. "I stopped and said I'd been waiting 20 years to hear that."
Watson had that effect on people, delighting those he met with his humble approach and positive attitude - two qualities that seem to be contagious.
The ToneBlazers participated in MerleFest's outreach program, performing for area students, as well as the volunteer banquet for all those who contribute their time to the four-day festival.
"We know a lot of those folks," Meyer said, "and everybody's just trying harder ... with a more positive attitude. Let's move forward."
Rusty and Helen Jarrett have attended MerleFest for nine years straight, and their twin daughters, Becca and Leslie, 5, haven't missed one yet. Their youngest, infant William, will not have the opportunity to see Watson play live, but the Jarretts know he'll experience what Doc set in motion.
"Great music and good times," Helen Jarrett said.
And in that respect, through music and memories, Watson still lives.
As Crouse said, "He set in place something that's going to endure for a very long time."
For more information on MerleFest, visit http://www.merlefest.org.