By RAHN ADAMS
BOONE, N.C. (April 27, 2020) – Life is full of irony. Exactly a month ago today—on March 27, 2020—our first iris bloomed in Morganton. Though the Rolling Stone-lipped flower is named for the Greek goddess of the rainbow and also shares its name with the colored part of the human eye, our first iris of the year was pure white, with only a touch of yellow from pollen around the blossom’s so-called beard.
Since then, the bearded irises that have bloomed in our yards—all of them in Morganton, none here in Boone yet—have been bountiful and beautiful in at least four colors of the spectrum, five if one counts the green of stems and leaves. Our two-toned, violet irises blossomed a week after the white one. Then came the yellow-and-white ones, the light violet ones, the light blue ones and the violet-and-gold ones.
We haven’t seen what we call Deep Purple yet—the indigo iris that has bloomed first for the past few years since I’ve been paying closer attention to our flowers. We’re also waiting for the small-petaled blue ones that we’ve mistakenly labeled Japanese irises but should probably call Trans Siberian irises.
Yes, if you haven’t already noticed, I’m thinking about music this morning—for two reasons, actually. First, this past weekend was when Timberley and I had decided to throw caution to the west wind and, come hell or high water, try to attend again the greatest Americana music festival on Earth, MerleFest, on the campus of Wilkes Community College. Through the festival’s 32 previous iterations, we’ve always tried to attend at least one day, all four days in years when MerleFest lined up with our school’s spring break.
When we worked at Watauga High School and taught several of the late Merle Watson’s grandchildren in our classes, we were blessed to receive complimentary tickets to the festival a number of years. So we were spoiled in a couple of ways—by being able to attend events we might not have otherwise been able to afford, and by being treated to world-class musical entertainment just down the road year after year. It’s hard to pick even 10 top moments or performances from the roots music festival’s 13 stages.
While we spent most of our time listening to entertainers on the Watson, Cabin, Hillside, Creekside and Americana stages, I also remember passing what appeared to be an impromptu gathering of mandolin players huddled together on a wet sidewalk one rainy Saturday and seeing a young Chris Thile take his inimitable turn. He didn’t appear to know or care whether or not it was raining or anyone was listening. Sheer joy—that was the emotion he communicated to everyone fortunate enough to eavesdrop on him.
A couple of years later, when Chris and the band Nickel Creek performed at the Holmes Center here in Boone, his joy came back to him from the largely millennial-aged audience’s overwhelming responses to the group. At one point a standing ovation was so increasingly loud and sustained—building beyond anything I imagined could come from any crowd that would have me as a member—that Chris, a 2012 MacArthur Fellow, said with a laugh, “Damn, y’all. That’s hurting my ears.” That ovation came at the start of the concert, as Chris, siblings Sara and Sean Watkins, and Mark Schatz appeared onstage.
At the end of that concert—when Nickel Creek was called back for an encore that ran into the Holmes Center’s 10 o’clock witching hour when sound technicians turn into pumpkins—Chris beckoned all of us to leave our seats and move closer to the stage, and the band played a purely acoustic set while the techies took down mics and packed up gear. So even the good that goes around can come back around. It’s called karma.
Though that musical moment and memory happened here in Boone, it’s typical of repeated experiences every year at MerleFest, I’m sure, not just through Chris Thile’s genius but through the brilliance of all the performers who have made connections with their audiences on the festival grounds. Undoubtedly, most of the “Music. Moments. Memories.” of the past 34 years have involved Merle’s father, the late, great Arthel “Doc” Watson, who died in May 2012 at the age of 89. But then, Doc was my guitar hero.
That isn’t a reference to the Guitar Hero video game that was so popular 10-15 years ago. Doc was the kind of guitarist whose talents I wish I could copy in some modest way but don’t have the natural talent or dogged determination to attain. And I always admired Doc for more than his picking ability—also for his rich, baritone voice and for his humbleness onstage. And for the gentle wisdom he shared in his song introductions. Actually, the comment I cherish most came 35 years ago, the first time I heard him.
In one of his first public appearances after Merle’s accidental death in 1985, Doc appeared at the City of Morganton Municipal Auditorium, or CoMMA, touring in support of Pickin’ the Blues, his next to last studio album recorded with Merle. That evening he explained something about playing music that applies to living in general: “If you hit a ‘wrong’ note and you let it throw you off, it’s called a mistake. But if you hit that note and turn it into a little run and then get back on track, it’s called improvisation.”
This past week’s MerleFest was perhaps the greatest improvisation in the festival’s history, as this year’s event had been canceled due to the current pandemic. Organizers decided to stream all four days of the 2012 festival—Doc’s last MerleFest—as if they were happening again in real time. As it happened, our favorite group, the Tedeschi Trucks Band, was a headliner Saturday night, and angelic Alison Krauss, whom we had bought tickets to see with Willie Nelson last Thursday night, was rebroadcast yesterday.
As I said earlier, we had decided to go out on a limb and try to attend the event this year. The last one we’d attended was in 2017, the year that James Taylor, another of my musical heroes, appeared for the first time at MerleFest. That was immediately before Timberley was diagnosed with cancer and then underwent life-saving but also lifestyle-altering surgery. We have trouble doing some things now that we didn’t worry about back then, not the least of which is standing in long lines for various reasons.
I had bought the Thursday night MerleFest tickets months ago, thinking they would serve as part of Timberley’s birthday present this month, her birthday being on April 15th. We figured we could find some way around our physical limitations, maybe with some help from Merle’s grandchildren again, not for the tickets themselves but for other necessary accommodations. We were just starting to make final plans to attend the long-awaited event when it was canceled six weeks ago after the pandemic hit.
All in all, it was a good MerleFest this year, though a stay-at-home one. We watched Derek Trucks and his wife Susan Tedeschi jam with Sam Bush on Friday night; we listened to the Waybacks perform Led Zeppelin II for the Hillside Album Hour on Saturday afternoon (without tripping once going to or from my seat for a change—that’s an inside joke for MerleFest folks); and we tuned in Sunday afternoon for Alison Krauss’s 2012 performance. Best of all, we didn’t have to wait in any long lines to use the john.
I also spent a good part of the weekend reorganizing the LPs, tapes and CDs that I’ve collected over the past 45 years. All the artists I’ve mentioned here are well represented in those treasured recordings, and I listened to several albums that I hadn’t played in decades, some I’d even forgotten that I owned, some I found that I now own in cassette tape, LP, CD, VHS, DVD and digital download formats. I’m blessed.
Aren’t most of us? I mean, aren’t many of us fortunate to be able to stay home to fight the coronavirus, while the real heroes among us—all the brave people who are working to help us in big and small ways during this crisis—do battle as medical, law enforcement and emergency personnel; as workers in jobs that have always been essential but are just now getting that designation and recognition; and as good neighbors who work together to get as many of us as possible through this pandemic rather than work against what’s best for us all. This is a time when being a good neighbor has life and death implications.
The other reason I’ve been thinking about music today is because I finally accepted one of those social media challenges to post 10 personally significant albums without comment over 10 days. In honor of MerleFest, I decided to restrict my choices to live albums—that is, recordings made at concerts or from TV or radio performances. I own more than 50 live albums in most genres, including high school band.
My initial post on Saturday was Chicago at Carnegie Hall, perhaps the worst live album ever released, but now considered a classic from the rock group with horns that hooked me on popular music in the early 1970s. Sunday’s pick was the Statler Brothers’ Farewell Concert, in memory of Harold Reid, the country and gospel group’s bass singer and funny man who died last week. This morning I posted Johnny Cash at Madison Square Garden, because the Statlers had been John’s backup singers.
That’s how I’m going to make my choices over the next seven days. One choice will lead to the next, and to the next, and to the next, on down the line. I’ve already had second thoughts about a couple of my picks, but I figure that’s the way things go with 20/20 hindsight. Few decisions are unassailable.
And I’m also going to take Doc’s advice and not give up if I happen to make what could be a mistake. I’m going to run with whatever note I played and improvise until I can get back on track—make Doc proud, as he would have been this past week with the way the MerleFest folks virtually saved the day.
Yes, life is filled with irony. Bad choices can be redeemed. Miscues can become artistry. Playing in the rain can be joyous. Irises can be white.