The Coolest Thing You’ll See All Week: America’s Top Bluegrass Players On One Stage

by Steve Spohn
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Sam Bush

Today’s installment of “The Coolest Thing You’ll See All Week” features six of America’s most influential bluegrass musicians on the same stage. We’ve got star-studded footage capturing the blazing soloing skills of the players that took bluegrass to a new level in the ’70s and ’80s – like Béla Fleck, Tony Rice and Sam Bush.

The year was 1988 – the inaugural year of the now-famous MerleFest in Wilkesboro, NC. Bluegrass pioneer Doc Watson founded the festival as a tribute to his son Merle Watson who died in a tragic tractor accident in 1985 at the age of 36.

The footage (below) from the very first MerleFest showcases the last song of the evening, “John Hardy Was a Desperate Little Man.” There’s so much heavyweight talent on the stage, it’s a miracle it doesn’t collapse mid-song. The lineup (from left to right): Mark O’Connor on fiddle, Sam Bush on mandolin, Tony Rice on guitar, Béla Fleck on banjo, John Cowan on bass and Jerry Douglas on dobro.

When these guys bust out into their solos – and get down into a groove – your jaw will drop and your toe will start tappin’. Better hold on tight!

As you’ll see, the (lucky) crowd is relatively small and tame at the first MerleFest, with just a few dancers at the back, clogging away. The crowds got much larger and much wilder as word got out.

(As a side note, Fleck, Bush and Cowan were all members of the band, New Grass Revival. Another point worth noting is that Bush, Rice and Fleck all played with Grateful Dead frontman Jerry Garcia, who rose out of a bluegrass background. The banjo was the first stringed instrument Garcia learned to play.)

It’s hard to overstate the importance and influence these six players had on the new wave of bluegrass that swept onto the scene in the late-’70s and ’80s.

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