They say what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. What happens at MerleFest, literally, goes anywhere and everywhere.
by Glen Herbert
For the past 15 years, a group of us have been coming to MerleFest from Canada. The festival provides a chance to catch up with friends that we likely wouldn't see very often otherwise, or perhaps at all. Over the years people have arrived from Saskatchewan, Alberta, British Columbia and the Caribbean. Some of us are youngish, and others young at heart. And the festival serves for us as it does for many - a reason to meet, to talk, to play music, sing and to share an interest in music.
And, over the years, it's taken on a bit of a life of its own, principally due to a growing friendship and association with the Kruger Brothers. It began, simply, by seeing the Krugers on stage at MerleFest. Well, that and a 50th birthday. That birthday was Steve Heming's, a friend who travels with us to MerleFest each year. Steve's favorite band from those trips was the Kruger Brothers. As a surprise for his birthday, another friend, Bill Hughes, hired them to come up to Canada. The plan was for Kruger Brothers to play at a summer camp where Steve was director, providing a surprise during the last week of August for him and an audience of friends, family and campers.
Being a surprise, it took a bit of doing. The Kruger Brothers arrived in the night to Bill's cottage, which is on the same lake as the camp, accessed by a very long, dark, winding gravel road. They had never met Bill, and it's funny to hear Jens, Joel and Uwe tell this part of the story ... as they snaked along that gravel road in the dark, they began to wonder just what they were in for.
What they found was a fire in the fireplace, and while they weren't aware of it, they also met some friends for life. That first night they stayed up late singing, telling stories, and realizing a deep personal connection that formed basically in an instant.
The following day the Kruger Brothers were spirited over to the camp and hidden within a building that serves as the backdrop for an outdoor amphitheater. The audience gathered expecting to see a group of friends sing camp songs, but what they saw come through the stage door was the Kruger Brothers in one of those moments when two disparate worlds collide.
Steve was aghast, which is not something that happens to him often. And while I've seen the Krugers many times, that show remains a favorite: the breeze in the leaves above, the dusk turning to a sky full of stars, and the music.
There were some surprises for the Krugers as well. While they had come from so far away, to a place they had never been, they were amazed when the entire audience sang along to the chorus of "Carolina in the Fall." The following night we went to Peterborough, Ontario, where Bill had scheduled a private party/fundraiser featuring the Kruger Brothers. They met and played on stage with Natalie McMaster and her husband Donnell Leahy. It was a stunner.
In any case, all of this is a reminder that MerleFest is responsible for so many connections; the music, moments and memories are certainly not confined to the days of the event itself or the location at Wilkes Community College.
For us, we continue to meet there each year, and the friendships with the Kruger Brothers have grown ever closer over the years. Jens has also since been featured on a recording by Natalie McMaster. They play the Peterborough Festival of Lights each year, as they do Hugh's Room, a Toronto club that is by any measure the most important folk club in Canada. The fan base in Ontario continues to grow, and this summer the Krugers have added the Goderich Celtic Music Festival, Hamilton Place and dates in Kingston and Ottawa to the annual Ontario tour. And, another direct consequence is a residency for the Kruger Brothers this summer at the Banff Centre for the Arts in Alberta, culminating in a world premiere of a new chamber piece, "Spirit of the Rockies," on the night of August 25. It's absolutely likely, if not entirely assured, that none of that would be the case had Steve Heming not seen the Kruger Brothers all those years ago at MerleFest and said, "Wow, that's a fantastic band."
Glen Herbert is a freelance editor and writer who lives in Burlington, Ontario. He is the father of three, plays Americana music, and volunteers to teach group guitar classes at a local seniors' recreation center. As a result, on any given day you can walk through the center and hear 20 seniors sitting in a circle singing the Krugers' "Carolina in the Fall."