January 18, 1995
WATSON FESTIVAL SERIES PERFECT FOR NOVICE, HARD-CORE FAN
By David Duckman [David Royko]
Special to the Tribune
When it comes to Bluegrass music on local television, the Chicago area is a desert. WTTW, home to a wide variety of musical programming, virtually ignores bluegrass, while cable is not much better.
Fortunately, WYCC (Channel 20) has picked up an extraordinary production by The University of North Carolina Center for Public Television that showcases bluegrass like few shows ever have. "Pickin' For Merle...Doc Watson & Friends" is an eight-part series that documents the Fifth Annual Merle Watson Memorial Festival, held in Wilkesboro, North Carolina in April of 1992. Launched in 1988, the festival honors the memory of guitarist Merle Watson, who was killed in a farming accident in 1985. Merle's dad, guitarist, banjoist and singer Doc Watson, is a living legend of traditional acoustic music. While not a bluegrass guitarist per se, Watson has had an overwhelming influence on the development of bluegrass guitar playing.
Doc is at the center, both musically and spiritually, of this festival, which draws a who's who of acoustic stars each year. The Watson festival features a wide range of bluegrass music, from traditional to avant grass, as well as folk, new country, singer- songwriter, old-time country, and even rock. Bluegrass festivals tend to inspire musicians to perform at their best, due to the concentrated gathering of devotees, as well as the constant "sitting in" that occurs on stage and creates musical combinations that fans can't hear elsewhere.
The Watson festival is one of the finest in the country, and "Pickin' For Merle..." beautifully displays this smorgasbord of talent, making it a treasure trove for hard core followers, as well as an ideal place for the curious to sample what bluegrass and related styles are about. Both the audio and video aspects of the production are first class, and the eight-hour package allows each one-hour segment to present substantial mini-sets by the featured artists. Highlights are too numerous to list, but special mention must be made of the first segment's astonishing "Tony Rice All-Star Jam," which includes Mark O'Connor, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Sam Bush, and Mark Schatz, as well as the second segment's thrilling Del McCoury set that includes David Grisman as a guest with McCoury's superb band.
These performances are only a couple of peaks in what is a must- watch series that also includes Peter Rowan, The Nashville Bluegrass Band, The Seldom Scene with John Starling, Ricky Skaggs, Laurie Lewis & Grant Street, Emmylou Harris & the Nash Ramblers, Kathy Chiavola, Carl Jackson, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band, Bela Fleck & the Flecktones, Riders In The Sky, and Tim & Mollie O'Brien, among many others.
"Pickin' For Merle..." airs on WYCC, Channel 20, beginning on Saturday, January 21, at 7:30 PM, and continuing for eight consecutive Saturdays through March 11.