In less than two weeks, crowds will fill the campus of Wilkes Community College for MerleFest, one of the nation’s most popular Americana music festivals.
The festival and its attendance have seen remarkable growth since the first one in 1988, featuring a flat-bed truck used for a stage. I love the wildly varied music and the excitement generated by MerleFest.
From the perspective of a journalist, I enjoy taking pictures and doing interviews. I’m getting to do exactly what I love most: talking to people and observing them as they interact with one another.
Over the years, I’ve been fortunate enough to meet many of the MerleFest artists, including some who tend to be hounded by fans.It’s one thing to watch these people on stage as they display their awe-inspiring talents. It’s quite another to get to know the artists as people who face the same general challenges in life that we all do.Truth be told, I wouldn’t trade the opportunity to cover MerleFest for anything in the world. I’ve accrued so many irreplaceable memories through the years.All of the interviews are interesting; I have to say that up front. Still, some flow just as easily as a conversation with a good friend, while others are much more of a question-and-answer struggle.
The latter would reflect the interview I had with John Prine the first time he played MerleFest. In person, Prine, a really fine, prolific folksinger, is quite different from the fairly engaging performer one sees on stage.I knew it wasn’t going to be easy to get an interview with Prine, giving the fact that he wasn’t even doing autograph sessions with fans and was leaving as quickly as possible after his concert.Partly because of stubbornness and partly because I always loved Prine’s insightful, socially provocative songs, I decided to foist an interview on him after the show, whether he liked it or not. It basically amounted to firing questions at him as he reluctantly signed autographs for some people who had backstage passes. His answers were polite, though not lengthy.Still, his comments were interesting and revealing.
Though not the best of circumstances for an interview, it was productive and provided an opportunity to actually see who the man is behind this music.On the other hand, MerleFest, a number of years ago, provided one of the best, most fascinating and enjoyable interviews of my career. The subject of that interview was Arlo Guthrie, one of a small handful of folk singers whose work on and off the stage made important social changes in our world in the 1960s, changes which still are felt today.Hanging around outside what was then the artist relations trailer, waiting for Guthrie, I was a bit nervous. I had listened to his music for much of my life and was aware of his stature in the music industry.I was lost in thought when someone touched me on the arm. “I’m Arlo,” the man with the long, silver hair said. “You must be Chuck.”We shook hands, walked into the trailer and talked nonstop for 45 minutes of an hour.
We probably would have talked for an hour more if it hadn’t been time for him to perform.Guthrie, whose father was famed folk singer Woodie Guthrie, was one of the stars performing at the 1969 Woodstock concert in Upstate New York. He told me that he was awed by the size of that crowd when he saw it from the helicopter taking him into the site.I’ll never forget a comment he made about the hippie culture of the 1960s. “We got the peace and love right,” Guthrie said. “We got the drugs wrong.”At the end of this session, I felt that it had been more like sitting down for a conversation with a good friend. That is a rare interview, indeed.The relaxed exchange was similar to the ones I’ve had at MerleFest with singer/songwriter Elvis Costello and John Paul Jones, bass guitarist with Led Zeppelin.
In any case, MerleFest will be here on April 25. I’m looking forward to it and here’s hoping you are, as well.