Published in encore magazine, April 2016
“Every festival has a personality and it’s interesting to see what that is,” Dave Rawlings says over the phone. We’re talking about various festivals across the country, one of them being MerleFest, which takes place April 28-May 1 in Wilkesboro, NC.
“We definitely cut our teeth on MerleFest, and we came up there in a lot of ways,” he continues. “Some of our first performances outside of Nashville had to do with that . . . I’m really interested to go back and see what this festival is at this moment.”
Dave Rawlings Machine—made up of Rawlings, Welch, Willie Watson (guitar; formerly of Old Crow Medicine Show), Paul Kowert (bass) and Brittany Haas (violin)—will take over the Watson main stage at 9 p.m. on Saturday, April 30. It’s been more than 20 years since Rawlings’ long-time partner Gillian Welch won one of MerleFest’s initial Chris Austin Songwriting Contests. Afterward they routinely played the festival for several years, but this 2016 marks their return after a few years hiatus.
Before the “big festivals,” like Bonnaroo and Coachella, there was MerleFest. From its start in 1988, Rawlings says the MerleFest community was a thrill for musicians and fans alike when he and Welch entered the scene.
“That was an amazing audience of acoustic-music fans at that time in those mid ‘90s,” he remembers. “A lot of people discovering a ton of new music but also there was this community for it, and I don’t think in that region there had been something like that in a while, of that scope.”
Playing music for the first time to a festival audience, often made up more of people who had never heard the artist before, offers a different perspective not necessarily found at a show where almost everyone in the room is singing along. The latter comes with a feeling the people there are those who are most interested in what the band has to offer.