MerleFest bills itself — with good reason — as a homecoming. For a quarter century now, the festival that honors the memory of guitarist Merle Watson has been the magnet that lures fans of a broad amalgam of acoustic-based music from all over the globe to Wilkes Community College. For four days in late April, the multi-stage venue becomes a Mecca of sorts for hordes of cross-generational, cross-cultural aficionados, now numbering close to 100,000, who have bonded over the love of this form of music that has come to be branded as “Americana.”
But this year’s event will be a homecoming for one performer, even though he has never appeared there. It will evoke special memories for him, not because of the venue but because of the festival’s patriarch and his family. This weekend, legendary Scottish singer-songwriter Dougie MacLean will be reunited with Doc Watson, and likely his wife Rosa Lee, their daughter Nancy Ellen, and Doc and Merle’s former bass player T. Michael Coleman.
In 1976, MacLean was a 22-year-old fledgling musician who, like virtually all aspirants, took a “day job,” this one in Germany, driving a vehicle shuttling folks around Europe. One of the groups he was hired to chauffeur happened to a blind American flatpick guitarist named Doc Watson, his family and band.
“To be honest, I didn’t know who Doc was at the time,” he said in a phone interview from his home n Butterstone, Scotland. “I remember picking them up at the airport in Hamburg and I got to drive the minibus to all the major cities in Europe and got to know them all really well during that tour. I got to look after Doc’s guitars and help with the sound, and after the shows Merle and I would hit the pubs.
“One of my fondest memories is driving down the autobahn with all the family in the back singing gospel songs. I didn’t realize how lucky I was at the time or how big he was. So this is going to be a special weekend for me, after all these years.”
Another memory that stands out is playing a song for Doc in his motel room. The song was MacLean’s signature song, “Caledonia.”
“I’d play Scottish fiddle tunes and he’d play them on guitar,” he recalled. “It was not long after I’d written ‘Caledonia’ and one day I decided to play it for him, before I’d even recorded it. So Doc Watson was one of the first people to ever hear ‘Caledonia.’” Since that time, that song has become the anthem for the Scottish independence movement, been recorded by more than 200 artists the world over, was chosen as the theme song for Homecoming Scotland in 2009, and was used in an ad campaign featuring Sir Sean Connery, Brian Cox, Lulu and other Scottish celebrities.
MacLean has become an advocate and spokesman for Scottish independence.
“I’m a great champion of independence in general. I like the idea of being in charge of your own destiny,” he said MacLean’s career is proof of that. He started his own record company, Dunkeld Records, 25 years ago, records in his own studio, owns his own publishing company, retail outlet, concert promotion and publishing company, and recently started a video-production company. His wife, son and daughter are all intimately involved in his touring and recording career and various other pursuits.
“There’s a certain contentment and integrity of being able to write about what I know and want to,” he said. “I like not being told to write for a trend or what’s fashionable. I record an album when I’ve got 10 songs that I think are worthy of being recorded. I’ve been very lucky to have had the success and longevity I’ve enjoyed without having to move to New York or Los Angeles or London.”
The MacLean family still lives in the village of Butterstone, near Perthshire, where he grew up. He bought the old one-room schoolhouse that he attended as a youngster, renovated it, and he and his family now live in it.
“I’m very grounded and rooted here,” he commented. “The rural landscape and nature have given me material to write about; you draw from your background and write about things you know. Being near the land is where I’m most content.”
Another outgrowth of his love for the land is a music festival he started eight years ago, called Perthshire Amber, that is like no other. It contains 14 separate venues (not unlike MerleFest) but rather than stages they are in castles and old grist mills and other steepedin-history sites.
“Basically I began by inviting all my friends I’d met on the road to come here and play, and it’s become a really fun event,” he said. “My family and a bunch of volunteers run it, and for 10 days I get to play with all my friends at these unique, amazing venues. Last year I think we had people from 22 countries attend it.”
Dougie MacLean will appear Sunday on the Cabin Stage at 4 p.m. For more info go to www.merlefest.org.