WILKESBORO — A new performance series, the Doc and Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase, will debut this year at MerleFest, presented by Lowe’s and slated for April 24-27. The series will join such performances as the “Memories of Doc and Merle” set, and the fan-favorite Hillside Album Hour, as part of the four-day festival, held annually on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro.
The Doc and Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase, hosted by Joe Smothers and Bob Hill of Frosty Morn, will take place on April 25 on the Austin Stage. Artists selected to perform include Locust Honey, Grits and Soul, The Barefoot Movement, The Local Boys, Jesse Stockton and Moonlight Company and the Sigmon Stringers. Additionally, there will be performances from frequent Watson family collaborators Joe Smothers, Bob Hill and Mitch Greenhill, as well as from Merle’s son, Richard Watson.
“The idea behind the showcase is to give local and regional talent an opportunity to perform at MerleFest,” said Steve Johnson, artist relations manager of the festival. “Doc was always willing to help support ‘up and coming’ and regional talent. Many of the artists who will be performing are successful in their own right already; this will allow festival-goers to see these artists in a more intimate setting. The music will be diverse and should provide the listener with a very eclectic sampling.”
“The ‘Memories of Doc and Merle’ set was suggested by musician T. Michael Coleman, long associated with his work as bass player for both the Seldom Scene and with Doc and Merle Watson,” said Johnson. “Each year at the festival Doc used to hold a similar set in memory of his son Merle; this new set will allow many of Doc’s musical friends to share memories about their times with both Doc and Merle.”
Coleman said, “I feel that since Merle, Doc and Doc’s beloved wife RosaLee have left us, I need - and want - to take up the mantle of reminding people about the music, influence and lives of the Watson family. They have meant so much to my family and me, far more than the music I shared with them. I was in a unique position with Doc and Merle and feel very lucky to have had that opportunity; I would like to convey that from where I sat in their history.
“I want to remind the tens of thousands of people that attend the festival that the heart and soul of this gathering in the foothills of North Carolina still flows down from Deep Gap. All the musicians involved with this informal set had a personal relationship with Doc and Merle and carry that connection, both musically and personally, to every audience they perform for around the world.
“It will be very spontaneous and fun, because that’s the way the music happened with Doc, Merle and me,” Coleman added. “We never rehearsed; we would just play whatever song came to mind with no set list — ever.”
The Hillside Album Hour — where a revered or iconic album is performed live from start to finish — had its official start in 2008, when festival favorites The Waybacks were asked to host a Saturday afternoon jam at the Hillside Stage, and performed “Led Zeppelin II.” Since that time, the Hillside Album Hour has showcased the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers,” the Beatles’ “Abbey Road,” the Allman Brothers’ “Eat a Peach,” “Are You Experienced” by Jimi Hendrix and last year’s album, “Before the Flood” by Bob Dylan and The Band. Over the years, the Waybacks have also recruited the talents of such performers as Emmylou Harris, Sam Bush, Rob Ickes, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Elvis Costello, Joan Osborne, Susan Tedeschi and many, many others.
Each year, the crowds for this event have grown substantially; the hillside is packed with thousands of delighted music fans who gather to find out what album will be featured, always a closely held secret until the show begins.
The Waybacks claim that the tradition of giving clues to fans ahead of the performance has become trickier with time: “We’ve found that we’ve had to make those harder and harder, as there are a lot of pretty sharp Album Hour fans out there,” said the band’s manager Michael Nash. “Seeing the creativity of their responses based on some pretty cryptic clues is a blast. We love how people have taken to the adventure.”
Clues should start appearing soon at the “2014 Hillside Album Hour Guess-A-Thon” Facebook page; fans are encouraged to leave their guesses — or join the discussion — at that page.
To take advantage of the MerleFest 2014 “early bird” ticket discount before the March 24, 5 p.m. deadline, visit www.MerleFest.org or call 1-800-343-7857.