A hard rain fell at times during the two-day Ninth Annual Melfest Bluegrass Festival held at Melfest Water Park in White Lake June 1-2.
But it wasn't hard enough to drown out the grass — bluegrass that is — as the seven bands took their turn huddled under the cover of the Melfest stage, and the crowd of attendees congregated under the shelter of tents, their feet and hands buckdancing to some of the state's — and the nation's — finest bluegrass bands.
Included among the festival's talent were the great Al Batten and the Bluegrass Reunion, which just finished touring with the North Carolina Symphony, and The Grass Cats, which have a song bulleting up the Bluegrass Top Ten.
Melfest has become a sort of local Woodstock for bluegrass, minus the drugs, alcohol and hygiene-challenged hippies.
Melfest founder Bill Melvin started the festival nine years ago, with the bands playing on the back of a flatbed truck. Now, they play on a beautiful wooden stage, made out of the timber of White Lake piers that were ravaged by Hurricanes Fran and Floyd.
Melvin said that while the two-day festival had been a huge success with great crowds and hot pickin', some of the best moments were unseen by the general public.
“After Friday night's performance, the best pickers from the bands went down to the waterfront and played all night,” said Melvin. “I got in at 4 a.m. and they were still playing when I left. It was amazing.”
Melvin says Melfest started as an unofficial, annual reunion of bluegrass pickers that vacationed at White Lake.
In 1999, Melvin decided to make it official.
“Al Batten played that first year, and he's still coming down here to play,” said Melvin. “It has really grown over the years.”
Melvin books the bands sometimes a year in advance — a necessity with all the competing bluegrass festivals going on across the South and the nation.
The bands that played this year's festival included the aforementioned crowd favorites Al Batten and The Swamp Cats; Black River Express; Starting Friday; Carolina Sonshine; Carolina Road; and Constant Change.
The talent at Melfest impressed even the jaded fan, such as Billy Cochran of Fayetteville, who said he attends approximately eight to 10 bluegrass festivals a year.
“I have to rank this among the best,” said Cochran. “The bands are great and the crowd is not too big … it's just perfect.”
Cochran, like most of the crowd, favored Al Batten's boys most out of the seven bands in attendance. Batten kept things rolling with jokes and banter interspersed between bluegrass favorites such as “Salty Dog” and “The Devil and the Farmer's Wife.”
The Grass Cats also left their mark, especially with their bluegrass version of The First Edition's “Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town.”
“We're already planning for next year,” said Melvin. “It just keeps growing and getting better from year-to-year.”