But if it's that great, (and Merle Fest is always great) why am I not with them? Alas, because after a somewhat lengthy and stable relationship with unemployment, I now have ... a job. And unfortunately, the job's start date was the same week as Merle Fest.
So, I'm curled up on the couch, alone, on a Friday evening, typing away about the great stuff other people are doing, instead of being stretched out drowsily in the sunshine, surreptitiously sipping some sweet rum concoction from a plastic bottle (a drink known as "Becky Juice," named for the good friend who, with an innocent smile as sweet as that rum drink, can get alcohol past any security guard) and letting the tunes of some of Americana music's best musicians wash over me.
Merle Fest is the annual tribute hosted by the legendary Doc Watson for his son and musical partner Eddy Merle Watson, who was killed in 1985 when he rolled his farm tractor down a steep hillside near his home. The first concert was held in Merle's memory three years later as a way to raise funds for the gardens of Wilkes Community College - one of the prettiest community colleges you're ever going to see.
My husband and the Wilkinsons have been calling me to say they saw: Ralph Stanley and the Clinch Mountain Boys; Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives; Sam Bush; Peter Rowan; Ryan Shupe and the RubberBand; the Waybacks ... The list goes on.
Yet, despite the array of well-known and amazing acts, each year at Merle Fest, there is also one band or songwriter, who emerges for us the Unexpected Favorite. The rules for choosing our Unexpected Favorite is that the musicians must be performers we have heard almost nothing about, but who immediately blow us away for one reason or another. One year, it was Nickel Creek. Another time, the Avett Bros. Then another year it was Chris Smither, followed by the Gourds. For my husband this year, the Unexpected Favorite is clearly Tish Hinojosa. Each time he calls, it's Tish Hinojosa this and Tish Hinojosa that. He tells me how great she is and reminds me that we met her daughter at SXSW one year and he just can't believe that I have no memory of meeting somebody related to Tish Hinojosa.
So...I looked up her bio. Merely for research purposes. Not that I'm jealous or lonely or anything and wanted to see what she looks like. (And I have to admit, she's quite pretty.)
Her bio peaked my curiosity. The youngest of 13 children born in San Antonio, Tex., Hinojosa's parents were Mexican immigrants. Born Leticia "Tish" Hinojosa, she records in both Spanish and English, and her CD, she moves casually between the two languages. She credits her musical diversity to the experience she had growing up listening to her parents' music, the area's country sounds and the popular rock and roll played by her brother's friends. She started playing guitar as a teenager, and started singing folk and pop songs in local clubs. But her mother, concerned that the club scene might have a bad influence on her daughter, set Tish up with a job at the local Spanish-language radio station, where she sang commercial jingles and recorded a few Latin pop songs for a local label.
Her story interested me enough to download her 2005 CD A Heart Wide Open onto my I-Pod. And despite being unable to be at Merle Fest, at least I can say that I get to have my own personal Unexpected Favorite this year.
Hinojosa sings songs of childhood memories and war-weary veterans' despair, of a mother's dreams and the lure of taking the back roads. But rather than being straight-up country - although there is nothing on this CD that wouldn't be in line with pop country values - there is something a bit more to her lyrics. Perhaps it's her multi-cultural upbringing, but she seems to bring a sincere empathy to the characters she sings about.
Her lilting soprano is accompanied by lovely restrained playing of various instruments that echo the diversity of Hinojosa's background. On The Poet the Painter, she shares the melody with the haunting strains of a violin. Absolutely terrific accordion rhythms give Blue-Eyed a distant and lonely sound:
Blue-eyed Billy was a veteran; Pumping gasoline when I was young.
Sunken eyes no longer see the ghost that haunts his mother's only son.
Blue-eyed Billy was a veteran, a college boy who learned to shoot and grunt.
No one knows the history of a battle like a soldier and his gun.
But I think my favorite song may be The Kitchen Table:
I'd love to be the kitchen table, from long ago when I was three.
To hold my father's morning coffee. To feel my mother's hand on me.
For more information on Tish Hinojosa, or to purchase A Heart Wide Open, her
web site can be accessed here.