This time most years, we’d be making final checks to see if we could spend a weekend in my hometown of Wilkesboro and attend Merlefest, the unofficial kickoff of the bluegrass/Americana festival circuit. The checklist involves time off work, pet boarding, and money (see pet boarding).
Merlefest started in 1988 as a benefit honoring Doc Watson’s late son Merle. It’s gone from a two-day event staged on a flat-bed truck to a four-day festival with more than a dozen stages and 100 acts, attracting 75,000 people or more to the Great State of Wilkes.
COVID-19 ended Merlefest’s 32-year streak, along with dozens of other festivals and thousands of live music performances worldwide.
To be sure, the pandemic silenced plenty of other music events. Coachella and Stagecoach, April festivals in the California desert drawing hundreds of thousands, were canceled last year and this. The massive Bonaroo festival near Nashville was postponed last year, then cancelled. It’s tentatively set for early September. The weeklong New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Festival is set for October. Colorado’s mid-June Telluride Bluegrass Festival, which started in 1973, Is supposed to open June 17, but acts haven’t been announced, and the festival website has been largely static since May.
As entire tours shuttered, bands began streaming performances on Facebook pages and YouTube channels — some for free, asking fans to hit a virtual tip jar, others charging modest access fees to the feed.
Most live acts spent a year sending their music from home studios or empty music halls into followers’ living rooms.
Thankfully, COVID infection rates are slowing. Vaccines are available. Indoor and outdoor venues are allowing live audiences — with social distancing and strict sanitation rules — and as the weather warms and immunity rates rise, those events will become more routine, easier to find.
Yet not the same, says David Brower, executive director of PineCone, the Piedmont Council of Traditional Music. PineCone is a Triangle-based nonprofit that for four decades has hosted concerts, workshops, camps, jam sessions, and other programs celebrating roots music with a North Carolina feel.
For the past year, PineCone’s programming has been on Zoom.
In a video call, Brower told me live entertainment will recover from the pandemic. Gradually. Initially, health concerns will keep attendance low. For the next year, maybe longer, some social distancing requirements will remain, especially for outdoor shows that lack assigned seating. Brower noted that it’s easier to separate patrons in indoor settings. You just remove or tape off some of the chairs.
Still, live shows are resuming. “Pod” performances have begun. Audience members rent a space in a field or a parking lot, sit in or on their vehicles, and watch the bands on outdoor stages. Some mini-festivals are set at campgrounds with a stage set up among the RVs.
It’s a temporary fix. Informal interaction between artist and audience is an essential part of roots music’s appeal. For awhile, that spontaneous connection will be interrupted.
“Music. Moments. Memories.” Merlefest’s motto. I can tell plenty of stories about each from the handful of times we’ve attended, from seeing Led Zeppelin’s John Paul Jones pick mandolin alongside Earl Scruggs and Doc to hearing Emmylou Harris sing “Wild Horses” at a Waybacks set when the California jam band covered the Rolling Stones’ “Sticky Fingers” album.
Restoring those “wow” moments is a big deal for traditional music fans. Gearheads won’t crowd the edge of the stage to get a close-up view of the guitarist’s fretting technique. Packaged meals and sealed beverages will replace free samples of food and drink and hot, greasy funnel cakes. Hand sanitizer will flow like water.
And artists will play their sets, soak up the appreciation, and return to their dressing rooms and trailers. They won’t work the crowds in between sets, hang out after shows to sign merch, or take selfies with fans.
Brower acknowledges it’ll be a concern as live music resumes. PineCone is the local host of the International Bluegrass Music Association’s annual convention and festival, which have been in Raleigh since 2014.
The highlight of the weeklong convention is the World of Bluegrass festival. It starts Tuesday with the three-day “ramble,” a sort of pub crawl through downtown Raleigh, with dozens of bands playing one-hour sets in clubs and venues from early evening through early morning. WOB wraps with a two-day free street festival, with a half-dozen stages, dance tents, and perhaps 100 vendors selling crafts and food and drink. Alongside the street festival is a ticketed two-day main event at Red Hat Amphitheatre, running from noon until 8 p.m., with local, national, and international stars jamming before a packed house. And there’s a massive exhibit hall with music gear to test and buy, artists pitching their wares, and space for old friends to reconnect or may jam a little.
Downtown teems with thousands of visitors and locals alike. If you don’t see at least one Grand Ole Opry member or IBMA Hall of Famer wandering the streets that week, you’ve not paid attention.
But maybe not this year. IBMA 2020 was virtual. Artists recorded performances that were streamed. PineCone and IBMA plan to pull together an in-person festival for October 1 and 2. How in-person it’ll be will depend on public health guidelines and the ability to enforce them. The ramble? Who knows.
Even with widespread vaccinations and herd immunity, some music lovers will balk at hanging out among large numbers of strangers when we’ve spent the past year knowing that anyone unknowingly could transmit an invisible, infectious, silent killer.
It’s tough for performance venues and the groups sponsoring them to keep the lights on in ideal circumstances. Under N.C. guidelines, indoor music venues can operate at no more than 30% capacity with social distancing enforced. Some small rooms that normally pack in 75 people might be able to sell tickets to a dozen.
Brower says a lot of indoor operations need to sell between 60% and 80% of available space just to cover costs. Less than a third won’t cut it.
“The margins are pretty thin to make performing arts work. To get to normal is getting back to what already was a pretty fragile situation,” he said.
“That said, I’m looking forward to getting back to thin margins,” he laughed.
Merlefest was rescheduled for mid-September, two weeks before IBMA. We’ll be there.