It’s terrifying to imagine now that when I was 18 I got in a station wagon with six other teenagers and drove 12 hours from Toronto to Wilkesboro, North Carolina, to the Merle Watson Memorial Festival. Terrifying because I don’t think any of us had much driving experience, money or sense. I had a big crush on one of the other passengers and would have gotten into the car whichever festival it was going to, but now when I look at the lineup for that year (1994), I’m glad we made it. Over the weekend that crush turned into a romance that lasted for what amounts to a lifetime at age 18, so most of my memories are not of the performers I was listening to who came to dominate my ears for years to come. But the moon-eyed haze I was floating around in tied up my first experience of bluegrass with all the intensity and longing of love and the freedom and excitement of traveling.
I like that bluegrass means such different things to its adherents, but that they all feel it strongly. It can be an exercise in authenticity, an article of faith, a technical jungle gym and an emblem of a time and place in history. It’s a genre that’s small and quirky enough that some people feel they can inhabit, protect and partly own it. Now it’s so embedded in my musical history that I don’t know if I can speak about it intelligibly with anyone who doesn’t already love it as much as I do. Here are some of my favourite songs by some of the artists that were playing at the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in 1994. — Doug Paisley
Alison Krauss – “Endless Highway”
I’m deeply attached to this album and feel that it’s some of the most emotional bluegrass singing. I also love Jeff White’s guitar playing.
Tony Rice – “Walls”
Tony Rice more than anyone else is the reason I am a guitar player and a musician. His many layers of musicality and his broader interests from modern acoustic instrumental music to restoring Accutron watches to his appearance on stage to his insights and comments in interviews make him a fascinating character. I’m so grateful for his time on earth.
Seldom Scene – “Wait a Minute”
When I began to play bluegrass, the high-water mark of what a bluegrass group could be was for me the Seldom Scene. They were such an assemblage of distinct characters. John Starling and John Duffey are two of my favourite singers.
Iris DeMent – “Our Town”
In my daily life I can connect to so much feeling in Iris DeMent’s music, but if I’m going through a hard time I think I’d approach it very carefully because it’s just so powerful.
Peter Rowan – “Moonshiner”
The myriad permutations of Peter Rowan’s music are mind-boggling. On my record shelf he’s the Zelig of great acoustic music.
Emmylou Harris – “Before Believing”
Aside from all the great and probably familiar things we can say about Emmylou Harris, I love her forays into more traditional music — especially on “Roses in the Snow” with Tony Rice on guitar.
Ralph Stanley & The Clinch Mountain Boys – “Sweet Thing” (The Stanley Brothers)
I realize this may not be a landmark tune for the Stanley Brothers, but it always sticks with me and I also love George Shuffler’s guitar playing.
JD Crowe & The New South – “Tennessee Blues”
Once I had finally recovered from the New South lineup with Tony Rice, I then discovered that there was a whole other set of tunes with Keith Whitley on vocals, and my head just about exploded.
Claire Lynch – “Second Wind”
Such a beautiful singer. I heard from dobro player Don Rooke that Claire Lynch may be living up in our neck of the woods now. I hope I get a chance to see her play here.
Tony Rice – “Shadows”
I discovered Gordon Lightfoot’s songs through Tony Rice. He brings out all the power and sadness in this tune.
Doc Watson – “Winter’s Night”
Although I’ve listened to Doc Watson all along I never tried to emulate or learn from his guitar playing the way I did Tony Rice or Norman Blake. There’s something inscrutable and compelling about it for me, and I’d rather take in his music not as a guitar player, but purely as a listener.
Photo Credit: Dave Gillespie