Laura Boosinger helps deepen North Carolina ties at MerleFest
Singer, banjo player, performer and educator Laura Boosinger will play at MerleFest 2018, as she has most years. But this year Boosinger’s time on stage will represent only a small part of her involvement at the festival.
Each year world-class acoustic, bluegrass, old-time and roots musicians come from all over to play MerleFest, which unfolds over four days starting on April 26 and running through April 29. But the festival, which celebrates its 30th year in 2018, has always taken its North Carolina origins seriously, and this year, with assistance and creative energy from a variety of sources, the connections to the state and to the Blue Ridge region will be even more pronounced. The festival was founded in 1988 in memory of guitarist Eddy Merle Watson, the son of guitar legend Doc Watson.
“The biggest thing I’m actually doing at MerleFest is helping with the Department of Natural and Cultural Resources and the Blue Ridge Music Trails,” Boosinger said. “They’re sponsoring some sets to showcase North Carolina artists who live in the blueprint of the Blue Ridge Music Trail.”
A two-hour slot running from 3:30 p.m. to 5:30 p.m. on that Friday at the Plaza Stage will feature four sets by different artists who come from the officially designated Blue Ridge National Heritage Area and some adjoining regions. Another two-hour slot featuring three sets by different artists will take place at the Plaza Stage on Saturday starting at 5 p.m. North Carolina Heritage Award winner Tony Williamson will perform with his band on Saturday at 4 p.m. on the Traditional Stage.
Boosinger is the director of the Madison County Arts Council, in the Western part of the state, just North of Asheville, a region that is rich with musical and particularly old-time history. North Carolina music legend Bascom Lamar Lunsford came from Madison County and many of the people that he spent his life learning old songs from came from there as well. His 1928 recording of the song “I Wish I Was A Mole In the Ground” was included on Harry Smith’s “Anthology of American Folk” in 1952. The song has become a central piece of American music. Lunsford, who died in 1973 and was known as “the Minstrel of the Appalachia,” organized the Mountain Dance and Folk Festival that started in Asheville in 1928. That event is often called the first to be billed as a folk festival, and it might be considered an ancestor of MerleFest.
In her career, Boosinger has delved deep into the musical heritage of Western North Carolina. She’s played and studied with musical families that have legacies and repertories extending back generations.
Boosinger became obsessed with Appalachian music when she was a student at Warren Wilson College in the 1970s and where she started taking banjo lessons with musician, educator and T.V. host David Holt, who was the director of the Appalachian Music Program there at the time. (Warren Wilson College, incidentally, is in Swannanoa, just east of Asheville, and Lunsford recorded a song called “Swannanoa Tunnel.”) It was at that time that Holt, with the help of students like Boosinger, started the Mountain Music Archives at the college, which made and maintained rare recordings of traditional music from the Blue Ridge Mountains. Holt will be performing several sets during MerleFest: three solo sets, and two as a duo with fiddle player Josh Goforth.
“There were still people who were living who had been around during the early ‘20s,” said Boosinger of the connections she made then. “There were people who were in the early recording industry.”
Getting college credit for taking banjo lessons was a fairly radical proposition, especially in the 1970s, before the hey-day of American Studies, and the experience opened Boosinger up to a sense of local history, community and culture that’s woven through her life since then.
“I essentially made up my entire college major around traditional music and Appalachia,” Boosinger said.
At Warren Wilson, Boosinger also took an interest in shaped-note singing, a vocal tradition in which she regularly performs and conducts workshops. She studied with Quay Smathers, a noted musician and shaped-note singer and singing leader who also taught at Warren Wilson. Like many musicians that play Appalachian traditions, Boosinger straddles the sacred-secular divide.
“I liked singing, and I liked hymn singing, and I liked gospel,” said Boosinger of how she came to the tradition. She also remembered her mother having mentioned “all-day singing on the grounds,” and wanted to know more about the group-singing events and practice.
Boosinger will lead a shaped-note singing set at MerleFest on April 29 at 9:30 a.m. on the Traditional Stage.
And, even beyond the Saturday-night/Sunday-morning distinctions between party music and praise music, the dividing lines between regional genres and playing styles were something that Boosinger learned to blur by studying and performing with musicians from Western North Carolina. In the ‘80s Boosinger played banjo with the Luke Smathers Band, from Canton, a string group that boldly mixed old-time, ‘20s jazz, gypsy music, western swing, honky-tonk, old pop standards and a lot of other musical threads.
For Boosinger, the years spent steeping in the music and the communities of people who make it has only driven home the wealth of history and culture in the state, and the degree to which North Carolina is a source of musical brilliance that radiates out through American music and beyond. MerleFest draws players and fans from all over the world to Wilkesboro, and it’s the generations of music-making families and their ties to the geography that makes it all deeply meaningful.
“People need to recognize that these musicians are the basis of this whole thing,” Boosinger said, “and North Carolina is the breeding ground of this whole music.”
John Adamian lives in Winston-Salem, and his writing has appeared in Wired, The Believer, Relix, Arthur, Modern Farmer, the Hartford Courant and numerous other publications.