There will be some solemn moments at the upcoming MerleFest
The event’s host and heart, Doc Watson, died last May, making this the first MerleFest without his singing, storytelling and legendary guitar work.
But there will also be some fun had by those who will be remembering Watson onstage, and the highlight will be The Celebration Jam.
Scheduled for the early evening of April 27, the Watson tribute will be hosted by Sam Bush and feature many of the artists who played with Watson over the years, including T. Michael Coleman, David Holt, Bryan Sutton, Jeff Little, Jack Lawrence and many more.
The festival takes place April 25 to 28 on the grounds of Wilkes Community College in North Wilkesboro. More information can be found at http://www.merlefest.org.
Bush has been a regular at MerleFest since its origins, going back to the time when the stage was nothing more than a flatbed truck. However, Bush’s history with Watson goes back before the festival was created in the mid-1980s.
“Now, more than ever, Doc’s legacy is secure as the most influential flatpicker and guitar player of the last 60 years in acoustic music,” Bush said. “His singing was so smooth and pretty that it was often overlooked, and people think of him as a guitarist first, which he may have thought of himself that way, too. But, I think that people will come to appreciate, more and more as time goes by, his singing, what a fine harmonica player he was and his ability to play old-time banjo. And, once again, while we think of him as more of a flatpicker, his Merle Travis finger-style guitar playing was phenomenal.”
Bush was already a respected musician as a teenager, and he played in various bands over the years. But when he formed the now-legendary New Grass Revival in the very early 1970s, young folks and open-minded music lovers took notice. Not long after that group hit the scene, Bush met Watson.
“I got to shake Doc’s hand early on at the Winfield Flatpicking Contest in Kansas, so somewhere around 1972 or ’73, I got to meet him,” Bush said. “Then, in 1974, New Grass Revival, Doc and Merle Watson and Frosty Morn, which was Merle’s band, we did a tour together that started at Winfield and went through Colorado on some dates, and then we went from there to Southern California and worked our way up. New Grass would open the show, and then Doc would invite different people from our band to join him and Merle and Michael’s show. That resulted in Courtney Johnson and I playing on the Doc Watson album, called ‘Memories,’ which Merle co-produced. To this day, that is a highlight in my musical life, to get to play on that record.”
Eventually, a couple of years later, Merle Watson decided to curtail his road touring, and that is when Bush stepped in to play some gigs as a part of Doc’s band. They remained good friends and musical collaborators up until Watson’s death last year.
“I was fortunate to have been in on Doc and Merle’s career, and personally, I will feel it,” Bush said, realizing that Watson will not be by his side at this year’s MerleFest. “I think we’re going to feel Doc’s presence, and we may be feeling him more than in years past. Because, as we would go through a MerleFest, Doc didn’t want it to all be about him. But I think that this year, more people are going to feel Doc, possibly more than ever.
“The tribute will occur on Saturday night before my band plays, and I’m kind of the master of ceremonies and emcee, which I’m happy to do. People like Frosty Morn, and I believe that the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band is going to be involved, and that is rightfully so because they were really instrumental in boosting Doc’s career in the early 1970s with the ‘Will the Circle Be Unbroken’ album. We’re trying to find as many of us that used to play with Doc as is possible. It will be a ‘one song each’ situation, and we’ll try to honor Doc as best as we can.”