The Krugers, John Prine and MerleFest

Published 10:31 am Thursday, April 28, 2016

So if you’re walking down the street, sometime;

and spot some hollow, ancient eyes.

Don’t just pass them by and stare, as if you didn’t care;

say hello in there, hello.

– John Prine

By Mike Barnhardt

Enterprise Record

I had already decided I wanted to go to MerleFest this year, the music festival in North Wilkesboro named after Merle Watson, Doc Watson’s son and musical partner.

I wanted to go last year, as well. Todd Snider was playing, one of my favorite songwriters and commentators on American life. But I couldn’t make it.

This year, it’s John Prine who caught my attention. He is perhaps the best songwriter in recent history. I love music, but it is the lyricists who really get my attention. John Prine is the best of the best. The song quoted above was about growing old.

The festival opens Thursday and runs through Sunday. Prine is scheduled to play at 9 p.m. Thursday. Maybe I’ll see you there.

It was a surprise a couple of weeks ago when Joel Landsberg called – pretty much out of the blue. He’s the bass player for The Kruger Brothers, who have performed a couple of times in Mocksville and who never miss a MerleFest. The Krugers perform on Friday and Saturday.

It was even more inspiring when he started to talk about Doc and his wife Rosa Lee Watson, and the first time they met.

Doc had already started the festival in memory of his son Merle, who had died in a tractor accident. The Kruger Brothers were based in Switzerland, and had a mutual friend with Doc Watson. That friend gave him a tape.

Doc Watson listened and said it was time to get that group to the festival. Then they were invited into the Watson home.

“Doc and Jens had a shared bond in that they were street musicians,” Landsberg said. “That really bonded them together. We all connected on a wonderful, musical level. To be considered even a friend was a tremendous honor.”

Then Doc headed to his basement.

He came back with a banjo and asked Jens to play. Rosa Lee started to cry. It was Merle’s banjo, and it was the first time anyone had played it since his death.

It was 1997 when they played their first MerleFest. Before long, they were regulars. Now, they live in Wilkes County and schedule their world-wide touring around MerleFest.

“The folks here in Wilkes County opened their homes and hearts,” he said. They even found the perfect land for them to buy. “It made moving here a no brainer.”

Playing at MerleFest was a no brainer, as well.

“It is absolutely one of the premier music festivals in America. So many musical styles are celebrated. It really is a tremendous blend of music.”

Started as a “roots” music festival, it has grown to include rock and roll, jazz, blues, Americana, bluegrass and everything in between. There are famous and no-so-famous acts. Emi Sunshine opens it up on Thursday, and Jason Isbell closes it on Sunday evening. Both are tremendous talents. There’s Brandi Carlile, the Dave Rawlings Machine, Old Crow Medicine Show, John Oates, Donna the Buffalo, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, the list goes on and on.

The festival is family oriented, with workshops, kids events and vendors. Not only can people watch and listen musicians, they can talk to some of them as well, Landsberg said.

“We’ve traveled to many festivals and MerleFest is the tops,” he said. “We’re constantly out there but we’re always home for MerleFest. Not only do we get to take part in this great festival, but we get to sleep in our own beds.”

The festival features more than 100 artists on 13 stages, on the campus of Wilkes Community College. It’s an easy drive from Davie County, just find your way to US 421 and head north.

Maybe you’ll see me there Thursday evening, trying not to sing along with Prine, spoiling the sound for those around me. For some reason, his lyrics stay with me. I can’t remember what I had for breakfast yesterday, but I can remember lyrics from a John Prine song I haven’t heard in years.

The lyrics aren’t all as serious as in “Hello In There.” Some are downright funny, such as this line from “Dear Abby.”

Dear Abby, Dear Abby, who’d ever thought,

That me and my girlfriend would ever get caught.

We were sittin’ in the backseat, just shootin’ the breeze,

With her hair up in curlers, and her pants to her knees.

Signed … Just Married.