A music nut makes the Merlefest pilgrimage

op merlefestAnyone who knows me well will tell you that I am a complete nut about music. There are people for whom music serves as a kind of soundtrack for their lives, so that certain bands and songs function as memory jukeboxes, instantly evoking specific times, places, and people whenever they come on, regardless of the circumstances.

You know who you are. One minute you are picking out ripe avocados at Ingles, the next you are jerked violently back to your eighth-grade formal because Elton John is singing “Daniel” over the cheap store speakers, and you are suddenly holding your shopping cart as if it were a freckled girl named Alison, and you are swaying foolishly between rows of plums and peaches while shoppers go about their day as if nothing of consequence is happening right next to them.

Maybe you are the kind of person who gets a new album, and then drives around playing it over and over until you know all the songs, sitting in your driveway playing one particular song over and over because it seems as if it were written about you, or for you, or by you.

Maybe you are the kind of person who has an assortment of favorite albums, bands, or songs for every mood or occasion, like a Whitman’s Sampler of music. If you are sad, you play your old George Jones or Billie Holiday records. If you are happy, you have to put on your old disco records or Prince’s “1999” and jump around in your house. If you are frustrated, you play punk rock or metal, or you put on Miles Davis, Van Morrison, or Pink Floyd to cool off and board a plane to another dimension, far away from your troubles.

For people like us — the music nuts of the world — spending four days at Merlefest in Wilkes County, N.C., is what we imagine heaven must be like. Because I am not too fond of huge crowds, I somehow managed to talk myself out of going to the annual festival — now in its 29th year — until last year, some months after my brother became president of Wilkes Community College, where the festival is held every year. Last year, I took the family up for a couple of days of the festival, where we saw The Avett Brothers and Dwight Yoakam, among others, and essentially had the time of our lives bouncing around from stage to stage drinking in all of that wonderful music.

I swore then that this year we would be there from the moment it began on Thursday afternoon until the moment it closed near dinnertime on Sunday, and I waited for months for the lineup to be announced. The first major artist to be announced was the legendary John Prine, who is only one of the best songwriters in the history of American music.

I have a single friend who loves Prine so much that he uses his music as a litmus test for first dates. Bottom line, if she cannot appreciate the genius of John Prine, there will not be a second date. If you are a music nut, this is going to make sense to you. It might sound a little crazy to someone else, but then again, having dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of CDs and albums stuffed into every available empty space in your car, office, and home probably sounds a little crazy, too. For you, it is just normal, like having food in the refrigerator.

So, Prine. I would have gone to the festival to see him alone, but there was so much more to come over the next weeks and months. The Steep Canyon Rangers, Old Crow Medicine Show, Dave Rawlings Machine, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Peter Rowan, John Oates, Brandi Carlile, and Jason Isbell, to name just a fraction of the performers who played at Merlefest this year.

We spent the winter preparing for the festival, sampling the performers we hadn’t heard and relishing the ones we already loved, looking forward to getting our hands on the Merlefest app for our iPhones so that we could begin putting together a plan of who would see, at what time, and at what stage. When last Thursday rolled around at long last, we shot out of Haywood County toward Wilkes like the Wabash Cannonball.

By the time the incredible Jason Isbell closed the festival down on Sunday evening, we had seen so many performers play so many unbelievable sets over the course of four days, that we could not put together a list of favorites. John Prine had so much fun with his set that he played an extra 40 minutes, far later into the night than anyone expected. Sam Bush brought everybody but Elvis Presley and Lawrence Welk on stage to play his encore, which was, of course, a great Doc Watson tune. Brandi Carlile punched up her set with covers of Bruce Springsteen’s classic “Born to Run” and Led Zeppelin’s “Going to California,” which both stunned and delighted the crowd.

In a year in which we music nuts have already lost David Bowie, Glenn Frey, Keith Emerson, Merle Haggard, and Prince, Merlefest was a great and needed reminder of the power of music to unite us in spite of our differences, to soothe us in our sorrows, to excite us into action, to heal our aching hearts, and to bring pure joy to the people who rely on it.

I am already looking forward to next year.

(Chris Cox is a writer and teacher who lives in Haywood County. He can be reached at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it..)

Go to top