Bringing MerleFest to Middle-Schoolers
Most MerleFest attendees know very little about the MerleFest Outreach Program.
And the program's organizers like it that way.
The last thing they want is for a bunch of music fans to crash the intimate outreach concerts that take place at schools, retirement communities and other places during the first two days of the annual festival.
The musicians in Donna the Buffalo know a lot about the MerleFest Outreach Program, having participated in it for more than a decade.
"We didn't do one last year, but I think that's the only year we've missed one," said Tara Nevins, vocalist, songwriter and multi-instrumentalist for Donna the Buffalo.
This year, Donna the Buffalo took its trademark Zydeco, country and rock sound to West Wilkes Middle School for a concert prior to the band's MerleFest shows. The band entertained the seventh- and eighth-graders at the school with a one-hour show in the school gymnasium.
As the band and its technical crew set up for the show and conducted a sound check of all the instruments, curious middle schoolers began to stick their head in the gym.
At 1:30 p.m., teachers began to lead their classes into the gym for the concert. During the first three or four songs, the 200-plus students enjoyed the music from the comfort of the wooden bleachers, clapping enthusiastically after each number.
Donna the Buffalo, like many of the MerleFest outreach performers, used the concert to introduce the students to their original songs and style. They also threw in a funky cover version of Johnny Cash's "Ring of Fire."
As the band began an instrumental intro to an especially rousing Zydeco number, guitarist and vocalist Jeb Puryear instigated some action.
"I'm just wondering who is going to be brave enough to be the first one on that dance floor," Puryear said to the crowd.
Sure enough, several students were just waiting for the invitation, and as the principal smiled nervously at the back of the gym, two, then four, then dozens of kids poured out of the bleachers and onto the basketball court. Eventually, about half of the kids present took to the floor, dancing joyously and without inhibitions, as only seventh- and eighth-graders can.
"You could tell that some of the teachers had told the kids to stay in their seats, while other teachers let their kids go dance," Nevins said. "I taught them how to do a line dance, and there were three or four girls that were really into the line dancing. There were even some teachers out there learning how to line dance."
After the final dance number, another outreach show was over, and the kids formed lines and returned to their classrooms.
Donna the Buffalo's hardcore fan-base calls itself "The Herd." After last Thursday's MerleFest outreach concert at West Wilkes Middle School, there is little doubt that the Herd has some new members.
In addition to Donna the Buffalo performing at West Wilkes Middle School, the 2011 MerleFest Outreach Program featured Timmy and Susanna Abell with the InterActive Theatre of Jef performing at Boomer Ferguson Elementary School, Andy May performing at C.B. Eller Elementary School, Buffalo Barfield performing at C.C. Wright Elementary School, Harper and Midwest Kind performing at Central Wilkes Middle School, the Lost Bayou Ramblers performing at East Wilkes Middle School, Steve and Ruth Smith performing at Millers Creek Elementary School, The Neighbors performing at Moravian Falls Elementary School, Town Mountain performing at Mount Pleasant Elementary School, The Wailin' Jennys performing at Mountain View Elementary School, the Tone Blazers performing at Mulberry Elementary School, Scythian performing at North Wilkes Middle School, Balsam Range performing at North Wilkesboro Elementary School, Jack Lawrence and Tony Williamson performing at Roaring River Elementary School, the Kruger Brothers performing at Ronda Clingman Elementary School, Jeff Little and Wayne Henderson performing at Traphill Elementary School, and the Local Boys performing at Wilkesboro Elementary School.