As MerleFest 2018 approaches, a highlight from one of the 100+ performing acts will be featured daily…
Cathy Fink and Marcy Marxer have been making music together for over 35 years, playing a variety of instruments including guitar, ukulele, mandolin, five string banjo and cello banjo to name a few. In fact, Marxer plays over 50-plus instruments and their harmonies together create a unique sound leading to 14 GRAMMY nominations and two wins during their career.
They have traveled the world with their music, performing, collaborating and teaching along the way. Both have closely followed the history of bluegrass and have strong ties to North Carolina with a residence in Lansing, home of Ola Belle Reed, an iconic North Carolina musician.
RedDirtNC recently caught up with Fink to discuss some of that history and MerleFest, which takes place in Wilkesboro this month on April 26-29.
RDNC: Having a residence in Lansing, are you originally from North Carolina or what led you here to our state?
CF: No, originally I’m from Baltimore, Maryland and my partner, Marcy Marxer is originally from Detroit, Michigan. We serendipitously met in 1980 at a folk festival in Toronto, Ontario of all places. We now split our time between a home in Lansing, North Carolina – the home of Ola Belle Reed, and Silver Spring, Maryland. We tour full time and don’t get to see either of these homes as much as we want to but we’ve got feet planted in both North Carolina and Maryland.
Our tie to Lansing is kind of an interesting story. Ola Belle was a consummate traditional musician and songwriter who grew up here in Lansing and her song, “High on a Mountain” has been one of the most important songs of bluegrass for 50 years. Del McCoury recorded it in 1962, Marty Stuart in the 1980s and she’s written hundreds of more songs and I think that Ola Belle was one of those iconic musicians from North Carolina whose music traveled all over the world. She won a National Heritage Fellowship Award from the National Councilman of Traditional Arts and we in the 1980s visited Ola Belle and her family many, many times.
Our connection to Lansing had to do with helping start the Ola Belle Reed Festival, in honor of Ola Belle and that festival went for about 10 years. It is not going anymore but we instead work with the Ashe County Arts Council to host an Ola Belle Reed Songwriting Retreat, which this year is April 13-15, in order to help keep Ola Belle’s music and name vibrant in the area. That’s part of Marcy and I’s being active in this music community and this combination of one-foot in traditional and one-foot in contemporary songwriting, so we have some pretty deep roots in North Carolina.
RDNC: How many years have you been performing at MerleFest?
CF: Our first MerleFest was around 25 years ago and this is probably our fifth performance through the years and what an amazing festival it has become.
RDNC: What is your favorite thing about MerleFest overall?
CF: My favorite thing about the festival, honestly, is the music. I love performing there but I also love hearing other people perform. It’s a festival with excellent sound and tech which makes the listening experience really pleasurable. Festivals are where Marcy and I meet a lot of our new music friends. We get to hear people we haven’t heard before, we get to hear friends of ours who play a lot, that we don’t see very often and we have a hoot in the vendor tent because we know all the vendors, instrument makers and we love hanging out in there and jamming – it’s really a lot of fun.
It’s a combination of things, for us it’s a great performance venue. It’s a great audience listening venue. It’s a great jam session and a family reunion. I also don’t want to overlook the fact that it’s an incredible tribute to Doc and Merle Watson and the amazing musical contributions they both made. The fact that their music has, among other things, helped build this worldwide community for people who like acoustic guitar picking.
RDNC: Your particular sound has often been described as “well rounded Americana” but into what particular genre would you place the music you make?
CF: (laughs) I think well rounded Americana is good because our sound is built on playing a lot of traditional old time music that comes from the fiddle tune tradition, old-time song tradition and harmony singing but at the same time we are enamored with the music of songwriters like Ola Belle Reed, Hazel Dickens and Alice Gerrard. Add to it that we write a lot of our own songs and we’ve escaped picking one genre for Cathy and Marcy which is where well rounded Americana comes into play.
Between us, we play a lot of musical instruments. Marcy plays over 50 instruments, she’s a phenomenal guitar player and was the main person who really re-invented the four-string cello banjo and brought it back to Americana music. People like Abagail Washburn and Ricky Skaggs, who plays one from time to time. Marcy was the one who made it prominent and inspired the Gold Tone company to bring it back.
My specialty is the five-string banjo and guitar. I play a little fiddle and we both play a lot of ukulele. The well rounded part is important but we also have, throughout our career, had a commitment to really great music for kids and families so they get a chance to hear live music with real musicians.
RDNC: Who are some of the artists that you’re looking forward to hearing during MerleFest this year?
CF: Among our friends that we have hung out with and played music with, I look forward to hearing David Holt, Happy Traum and Rhiannon Giddens – I was her first banjo teacher in North Carolina at the Swannanoa Gathering. There’s a new bluegrass band called Cane Mill Road who we’ve been mentoring and their going to be performing there.
There are some bands that we haven’t heard live but I can’t wait to hear. We listen to their albums and recordings but it’s a whole different thing to hear people play live, it’s exciting. We’re looking forward to hearing Mandolin Orange, Alison Brown, We Banjo 3 … it’s a big lineup.
One of our goals is to hear people we haven’t heard before. We try to catch our friends as much as we can but the way you learn something at these festivals is to go see someone you haven’t heard. To me, that is a really important piece of the whole thing.
Fink and Marxer have a new album coming out soon with Appalachian musician Sam Gleaves called, “Shout and Shine” and will introduce the trio for the first-time at MerleFest. Currently, they are scheduled to perform on Friday and Saturday this year.
Friday, 9:30am-10:15am (Creekside)
Friday, 1:30pm-2:00pm (Cabin Stage)*
Saturday, 11:00am-11:30am (Little Pickers)
Saturday, 6:00pm-6:30pm (Traditional)*
*Trio with Sam Gleaves
View the full MerleFest schedule and stage lineup here.