MerleFest, which took place April 23-26, wrapped up its 28th year of bringing “Traditional Plus” music to Wilkesboro, North Carolina. The festival started in 1988 as a tribute to the memory of Merle Watson, the son of music legend Doc Watson. Its focus is on bluegrass and old-time music from the Appalachian tradition, as well as Americana, country, blues and rock. It’s a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, which hosts the festival. Some notable past performers include Dolly Parton, Willie Nelson, Earl Scruggs, Carolina Chocolate Drops, The Doobie Brothers, Elvis Costello and Levon Helm.
This year, more than 78,000 festival-goers saw performances by national artists including The Avett Brothers, Dwight Yoakam, The Marshall Tucker Band, Trampled By Turtles, Lee Ann Womack, Hot Rize, Béla Fleck & Abigail Washburn, and many more. Some up-and-coming artists that got fan attention at the festival were Mipso, Jesse and Noah Bellamy, Brandon Whyde and The Devils Keep, The Honey Dewdrops and Del Barber.
The weather at times wasn’t ideal, but the festival delivered the goods. With about 100 performances on thirteen stages, no one can see it all, but here are just a few highlights (and maybe a lowlight) from the festival.
The dream band for your dance party
Scythian. The Celtic-Klezmer-gypsy-rock band (got all that?) had the audience on their feet dancing at multiple sets throughout the festival. The high-energy, good-humored performances are hard to resist, and why would you want to?
He Does His Own Stunts
David Mayfield Parade. If someone at MerleFest is going to leap from the stage and do somersaults on the grass in the rain, you can be pretty sure that it’ll be David Mayfield. When he wanted to put down his guitar, he pretended to trip over something on the stage and fall flat on his face. He’ll do about anything for a laugh. But don’t be distracted: he has a remarkable voice, is a phenomenally skilled guitar player, and writes some beautiful songs.
This Will Make You Feel Good About The Future
Part of MerleFest’s mission is to carry the region’s musical traditions forward, so they make space in the festival for kids to show off their talents. The Moore Brothers, a North Carolina-based young bluegrass trio with impressive instrumental skills, performed for a large crowd Friday. And the Acoustic Kids Showcase gave kids, selected by video auditions, a chance to play on stage as well.
The Avett Brothers. This North Carolina band has a deep connection to MerleFest. They’ve performed at the festival several times over the years, and before that, attended as fans and reportedly entered (and lost) the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition. They learned songs from MerleFest founder Doc Watson. Their Saturday night headline performance gave fans everything they could have hoped for. The show was a deep journey through their catalogue (in fact, they played only two songs from their most recent album.) They paid homage to their roots, and to MerleFest’s heritage, with a couple of songs they learned from Doc Watson, and also to family, bringing their sister, Bonnie, onstage to sing a song with them. A highlight of their set was when Peter Rowan joined them to sing “Till the End of the World Rolls ‘Round.”
Most Likely to Convert Non-traditionalists
Peter Rowan. There are more flat-pickers than funnel cakes at MerleFest but there are still plenty of people who come for the “plus” rather than the “traditional.” Peter Rowan’s Saturday night set in advance of The Avett Brothers should have gotten their attention. He’s a walking history of bluegrass and a hero to many of the younger MerleFest performers, but, just as importantly, at 72 years old, his voice has not lost a note. It’s resonant, nuanced, expressive and a joy to hear.
Most Surreal Moment (not in good way)
The Marshall Tucker Band’s Friday night set. Let me say right off the bat that the band can play. The assembled musicians are superb. But front man Doug Gray was more of an MC than a lead singer, silencing the band and the crowd with long, rambling monologues. When he did sing, it was clear that his voice hadn’t held up over time. There were a couple of high points of the set: he brought out mandolin virtuoso Sam Bush to play fiddle on “Fire on the Mountain,” and the capable vocalists in the band belted out “Can’t You See.” But, still, if Gray had talked less maybe they would have found time to play “Heard it in a Love Song.”
There were some fun collaborations throughout the weekend. At the Hillside Album Hour, Joan Osborne and The Waybacks performed Bruce Springsteen’s “Born in the U.S.A.” from start to finish, joined by Sam Bush and Jens Kruger (Kruger Brothers.) Sam Quinn (formerly of The Everybodyfields) played bass with The Black Lillies during their excellent sets on Sunday. At the Midnight Jam on Saturday, The Steel Wheels, Mipso, Front Country, The Honey Dewdrops, Willie Watson, New Country Rehab and other artists mix-and-matched to play songs by The Band, Merle Haggard as well as plenty of bluegrass. Makes you wish there were more occasions to have two upright bass players on stage at the same time.
The sad thing about festivals like this is not getting a chance to catch every act. I heard a lot of buzz about the sets by Béla Fleck and Abigail Washburn, Hot Rize, and The Kruger Brothers.