I couldn’t love my Merlefest girls more than I already do. Of course I keep saying that, and they they do something even more fun, and supersede their previous levels of coolness.
It’s the perfect crowd, really, for such an event. The group varies year to year, depending on schedules, and some of our favorite people are Entirely Unwilling to Camp. But of those of us who attend religiously, we are individually and collectively all independent spirits, and also good collaborators. We start with the agreement that everyone goes to the shows they want to see, nobody misses anything they love, and nobody gets dragged to anything. It’s Merlefest. It’s a happy place.
All of our phones died this year. Mine died almost immediately, taking my car battery down with it. The others fizzled slowly. Service is spotty up there, and that really limits communication. No matter. You shuttle-bus it over, claim a spot in big field, park all of your extra layers for nighttime, and disperse. We had the vaguest of plans; we all scattered every morning and ran back into each other with a “Hey, YOU! I know YOU!” We drifted in and out of things, and managed always to reconvene.
The reconvening almost fell apart at the Wayback’s Hillside Album Hour, where they do a surprise album cover every year. The hints have been coming for weeks, and we were all stumped. We’d agreed to each throw in a dollar and a guess, and the person who came closest to the actual album would win bragging rights and enough cash for an ice cream after the show. Three of us had stumbled across each other in the food tent, but Audrey was elsewhere. We had agreed to “meet on the top third of the hill near the center,” but there are something like 76,000 Merlefest attendees every year, and 75,000 of them are on the hillside for Album Hour. Julia and Willow and I exchanged guesses while we waited for her.
“I think it’s Red Headed Stranger, which is what I really want it to be, but I’m going to say Pearl, which might be right if I say it every single year and eventually they have to do it, although if Eilen Jewell is singing along with them, Loretta Lynn is too obvious so I think it could be Dolly, I can’t remember the name but it’s the album with the jumpsuit and “Jolene” on it.”
Julia and Willow blinked at me. “So….which one are you betting on exactly?”
Frustrated hand-clenching motions. “uuuuuummmmmmmm PEARL. Julia? You?”
We had a blinding, road-to-Damascus understanding that it had to be the Rolling Stones because one of the clues was “Earth Science,” so she went with that, although she’d been back and forth on Elvis. “Willow?” we said. She did a thoughtful face, but just for a second. “Dylan. I’m sticking with Dylan.”
At the eleventh hour, plus five minutes, we saw Audrey making her way up the perilously steep hillside, threading through thousands and thousands of people. We celebrated. “Quick quick quick what’s your album? They’re sound checking!”
“Johnny and June Carter,” she said. “Gaaaaaaaa!” we all said, because it was so, so good. Rolling Stones was the only one that came close to any of our clues, though, so we figured Julia had it locked.
The tension on the Hillside is just electric, absolutely tangible, in the minutes before they start playing. Everyone is guessing, everyone is on the edge of their seats (that’s also because you seriously have to dig in a foothold, lest you tumble down onto the next few rows of people on blankets. So they soundchecked, and they cranked up, and then there was an introduction, and they launched into this year’s mystery album…….
and nobody recognized it. We all stared at each other, and then stared at other people’s faces all up and down the thousands on the hillside, and not a soul seemed to have any grasp of the album or the artist. Halfway through the song, we were pretty sure we had narrowed it down to Motown, and suspected it was a female, maybe someone Dionne Warwick-esque. They finished the first song and said, “Have we completely confused and baffled you? Has anyone figured it out? Anyone?” And from where we sat at the top of the hill, one lone woman, sixty-something, wearing purple, waved her hands excitedly and nodded. Just the one.
“It’s a collaboration between Bob Dylan and The Band,” they said, and we laughed at how far off we were with Motown, and we all threw our dollar bills at Willow. Because DYLAN. Well done, first time out.
We scattered again after a couple of hillside songs, and agreed to meet at the Honeycutters later, or camp out in the Dance Tent for the evening if the rain started. I was determined to hear the Honeycutters again. I’m convinced they are able to see the thought bubble over my head and are writing songs about it. They’re amazing. So I showed up early, and then there was a sprinkle, and a rain drop, and a wrapped myself up in a shawl and made myself as small as possible under the umbrella and hoped it wasn’t actual “rain” happening, and then it was suddenly a good soaking shower.
I stomped through the puddles to the Dance Tent, indeed, where the festival girls had already gathered my things from the field and checked my chair. All of our stuff was in a pile, and our sun hats were perched on top. Julia’s is all garden party, with a pretty wide brim and alternating bands of color. Audrey’s is a wide brim, too, but sometimes there’s one with playful little highlights of turquoise and sparkles, very day-at-the-beach. Willow’s is dark brown, cowgirl style, with sassy rolled-up sides and turquoise trim. Mine is a straw cowboy hat from Target, but I bought the heavy beads which weigh it down out of a bus window in Africa years ago. They’re all just sun hats, sure, flung around in our messy piles of gear.
I think they look pretty great together, though.