Welcome. Here are a few words about photography, music, and more.
East Tennessee's Own WDVX is a listener-supported community radio station broadcast and webcast from the Knoxville Visitor Center in Knoxville, Tennessee. Fifteen years ago, WDVX started broadcasting from a fourteen foot camper trailer in Clinton, Tennessee. The station was established with a mission to preserve and promote the music of the Southern Appalachians. WDVX plays Americana, bluegrass, classic country, bluegrass gospel, blues, and traditional music. (Pretty much the things you find at MerleFest.) Over the years, WDVX has received many recognitions including being named Bluegrass Station of the Year seven times by the International Bluegrass Music Association. WDVX's Freddy Smith and Alex Leach have both been named Bluegrass DJ of the Year by IBMA.
WDVX has as a key element of its mission the presentation of live music. In 2004, WDVX moved its studios to downtown Knoxville and brought back the tradition of live radio performances on Knoxville's Gay Street. Monday through Saturday from noon to 1:00 pm, WDVX hosts the Blue Plate Special, a free live concert open to the public. Many of the performers at MerleFest 2011 have played the Blue Plate Special. Every Monday night at 7:00 pm, WDVX hosts a ticketed live show, Tennessee Shines, from the Knoxville Visitor Center. And if that's not enough, on the last Saturday of each month, the same stage features Kidstuff from 10:00 to 11:00 (also free) for all the little listeners. All of those programs are broadcast and streamed live on WDVX.
From WDVX's beginning, its staff and fans have attended MerleFest. In 2005, 2011, and again in 2012, WDVX has been a MerleFest sponsor. Our booth at the Shoppes at MerleFest is a great way to visit with our existing listeners and to spread the word about WDVX. Fans and artists alike stopped by last year. Please say "Hello" during your trip to MerleFest.
Singer/guitarist Joe Smothers visits with WDVX volunteer Susan Lawson at the WDVX booth at MerleFest 2011.
MerleFest is fun for an event photographer. Unlike some music festivals, MerleFest is photographer-friendly. There are restrictions, of course - no admittance to the backstage areas, no selling of your photos without express permission from both the artist and from MerleFest. But those don't matter to the music fan taking photos to cement his or her memories.
Here are some general tips for photographing musical events:
With so many stages to choose from, there are always opportunities to photograph. Each venue is different, with it's own photographic advantages and challenges. The Watson Stage features the headliners in the evenings, and the evening stage lighting makes for great photos. However, unless you have a pass for the reserved seating area, you can't get close to the Watson Stage after 5:00 pm. The Cabin Stage is adjacent to the Watson Stage, but there's no convenient area for a photographer to shoot from. The Watson Stage and the Hillside Stage both are fairly high above ground level, so photographing from up front is a challenge. It's often better to be a bit further back and use a lens with a long focal length.
The Creekside Stage and the Americana Stage are easily approached. One big challenge at Creekside is avoiding bright spots in the background from tour busses and equipment. Often, the best photos at Creekside isolate individual performers against darker backgrounds. The Americana Stage offers a different challenge. Since it faces west, afternoon light can be rather harsh and contrasty. The Plaza suffers from similar harsh light.
Little Pickers, Traditional, and Dance are all tents, so the difficulties of dealing with sunlight go away. The Mayes Pit, the Austin Stage, and the Walker Center are all indoor venues.
The Pickin' Place is an area where anyone is welcome to bring their own instrument and join in the music. There's good music there, and a chance to get up close. Keep in mind that jamming musicians typically sit or stand in a circle. You'll be photographing over someone's shoulder.
One final, but important thought, don't forget to photograph everything else. It's easy to get carried away taking pictures of performers. When you get home and go through them, you may realize that your MerleFest experience was much more than what you captured. Keep your eyes and mind open to all of the visual opportunities around you - the crowd, the Shoppes at MerleFest, the scenery, the craftsmen. Take lots of photographs of things other than the performers. If you're using a digital camera, electrons are free. Use them up.
What's MerleFest like?
Besides offering lots and lots of great music, MerleFest has the best family-friendly atmosphere you could imagine. It starts with your arrival at the main gate on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC. Fans arrive by shuttle bus, bicycle, or on foot, and are often met by a bluegrass band playing outside the gate. (All parking is at remote lots, with Boy Scout troops and others providing frequent shuttle service for donations.) After a quick screening to ensure that no contraband makes it into the festival grounds, you walk out into the campus. To your right is the Dance Tent and in front of you are the Shoppes at MerleFest. More performance venues spread in all directions with enough space between to keep the music from overlapping.
Pick up a copy of the MerleFest program and check out the map and the stage schedule (if you haven't already). Pick a direction - maybe straight ahead.
Jim Lauderdale, WDVX Program DirectorTony Lawson, and Roy Book Binder converse at the WDVX booth at MerleFest 2011.
As you get to the end, check out the sand sculpture. Watch it evolve as the festival progresses.
To your right is the Americana Stage, a more intimate setting than the two largest venues - the Watson Stage and the Hillside Stage. Wander over and sit in the grass. The music will be outstanding, and the audience will be listening. That's one or the wonderful things about MerleFest. The audience would rather listen than talk. They're listening to good music that sounds good. The quality of the sound systems at MerleFest is among the best.
If you chose to go left, you would quickly reach the MerleFest Mall where you can purchase CDs from the artists playing at MerleFest. There are autograph tables near the Mall and schedules of when your favorites will be available.
Beyond the Mall, the area opens into the grounds in front of the Watson Stage. And beyond that is the food court. After a quick bite to eat, look at your schedule again. This is the time when you realize that you want to be at the Hillside Stage - as far away from the food court as possible.
My advice - head for Hillside if you need the exercise or stop at any venue for a performance you will enjoy.
I'm studying eleven pages of printout. It's the stage schedule for MerleFest 2012. Thursday only takes one page since the gates don't open until 2:30 and only five stages are active. Friday and Saturday take up four pages each, and Sunday takes up two.
So, I've got highlighter in hand, and I'm starting to plan. The first year that I went, I made sure to see as many of the artists that I liked as I could. (You can't see them all, but you can try.) After the festival, I realized that I had missed an opportunity to discover for myself people I was unfamiliar with. I vowed that the next year, I would focus mainly on artists I knew nothing about. Alas, that strategy didn't work either - there was just too much to do and too many to see. Once again, I'm trying to be aware of where and when favorites can be found without losing track of other great options. On Thursday, I certainly wouldn't want to miss Donna the Buffalo with Jim Lauderdale on the Watson Stage. (That's the main stage.) And later on the Cabin Stage (adjacent to the Watson Stage), Wylie Gustafson (of Wylie and the Wild West), Jim Lauderdale, and Claire Lynch have a songwriter showcase. At least those two don't conflict. After Thursday, the decisions get tougher.
Jim Lauderdale performs on the Creekside Stage at MerleFest 2011.
I've been trying to catch up to Roy Book Binder for five years. Last year, I was able to hear two songs from his Sunday morning set. Is this the year for more? I'm not going to miss The Greencards. I won't miss them at home, so I won't miss them at MerleFest. Greencards members Kym Warner and Carl Miner are also playing as a duo - and I hear great things about that configuration.
There's the Hillside Album Hour hosted by the Waybacks. Each year they invite friends to join them in playing a classic album from start to finish. It started in 2008 with "Led Zeppelin II" and continued with "Sticky Fingers," "Abbey Road," and "Eat a Peach." This year's album hasn't been announced, but it should be fun. (Recordings of the Hillside Album Hour from 2008, 2010, and 2011, and many other MerleFest performances can be purchased online through FestivaLink.)
And what about those artists that I haven't heard before. I'm still trying to figure that out.
I'm running out of highlighter before I run out of MerleFest schedule. More later.
MerleFest - It's almost here. The festival gates open Thursday, April 26, at 2:30 pm. There's still time to make your plans to attend.
"MerleFest was founded in 1988 in Memory of Eddy Merle Watson as a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College and to celebrate 'traditional plus' music." (MerleFest Mission Statement)
Merle Watson's father, the legendary Doc Watson, performs on the Traditional Stage at MerleFest 2011.
For 25 years, MerleFest has been the premier music festival celebrating Americana and American roots music. For four days, the festival takes over the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, NC, with fourteen stages and nearly 100 artists. (The complete 2012 lineup is on the MerleFest website here.)
As a music fan, I love the opportunity to hear such a wide variety of performers - from the very famous to those I've never heard of before.
As an event photographer, I love wandering the Wilkes Community College campus capturing the experience.
And as a volunteer with listener-supported community radio station WDVX, I look forward to helping staff the radio station's booth, making new friends and visiting with old ones.
I'll have more to say about MerleFest over the next few days and new notes and photos from the festival as it progresses.