MERLEFEST TO BE BITTERSWEET FOR HEADLINER VINCE GILL
Returning to this year’s MerleFest will be bittersweet for headliner Vince Gill.
He’ll be glad to be performing at the festival again, along with an illustrious group of musicians that includes Marty Stuart, Alison Krauss and the Union Station and Jerry Douglas, Los Lobos, Tedeschi Trucks Band, and Béla Fleck and the Flecktones.
But this will be the first festival since the death of Earl Scruggs, a legendary bluegrass banjo player and personal friend of Gill’s. Scruggs passed away last month.
Many longtime MerleFest fans will remember the 2004 festival when Gill took the stage with Doc Watson and Scruggs for a special Scruggs birthday set that included “Foggy Mountain Breakdown” and “The Ballad of Jed Clampett.”
“I have so many fond memories of Earl, and we’ve been really close pals most of my musical life,” Gill said. “The very first thing I ever heard on the radio was the banjo, and it made me want to play. The sound and the way Earl played changed so many people’s lives.”
MerleFest opens today and runs through Sunday on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro. It was created in memory of Eddy Merle Watson, son of legendary musician Doc Watson.
Gill was one of the performers at the first MerleFest in 1988.
“Doc Watson taught me how to flat pick,” Gill said. “When Merle was killed, Doc asked me to come out and play the festival, and of course I agreed.”
He has played the festival a few times since then, although this will be his first time in eight years. Gill said he always enjoys the festival because it allows him to work with musicians of the highest caliber and to return to his bluegrass roots.
“Bluegrass music made an amazing impression on me when I was young,” he said. “I felt moved by it, and I wanted to try to figure out how it worked. Obviously, I made a career in the world of country music, but bluegrass is still a big part of me.
“MerleFest is honest and authentic,” Gill continued. “When I’m asked to play, I feel flattered because of who they bring to the festival each year.”
The MerleFest lineup includes bluegrass and old-time music as well as Americana, blues, country, Celtic, Cajun, cowboy, zydeco and rock. Watson refers to the mix as “traditional plus,” and the variety of genres mirrors portions of Gill’s career.
“I’m proud of the diversity of people I’ve played with over the years,” Gill said. “My fans know that I’m all over the map, and I’ve played a little bit of everything.”
Gill’s professional background includes stints with Ricky Skaggs, Pure Prairie League and the Cherry Bombs. He signed with RCA Records in 1983 and moved to Nashville to focus on country music. He had his first Top 5 single, “Cinderella,” in 1987 and then earned Single of the Year at the 1990 Country Music Awards with “When I Call Your Name.”
Gill’s first No. 1 single, “I Still Believe in You,” hit the charts in 1992, the same year he first co-hosted the CMA Awards, where he returned as host for the next 12 years. He married singer Amy Grant in 2000, continuing to work with a variety of musicians, releasing “These Days,” a four-CD set that features traditional country, ballads, contemporary, up-tempo, and acoustic/bluegrass music in 2006.
“I’m glad that I can sing with someone like Diana Krall and it sounds authentic,” Gill said. “I try to pick up on the nuances of what makes each person unique.”
Gill was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2007, has sold more than 26 million albums and earned 18 CMA awards. Yet despite the many accolades, Gill is also well known for his humanitarian efforts, a fact that pleases the down-to-earth golfer, hockey fan and father who hits the links almost every day and looks forward to watching his Predators hockey team play.
“There are an awful lot of people trying so hard to be famous, but they miss the boat,” Gill said. “Being successful is somewhat fleeting; being significant is much more appealing.”