Last weekend marked the 29th Merlefest, and it was certainly one for the books. Put on by Window World and held on the campus of Wilkes County Community College, in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, Merlefest brought in over 100 artists and 70,000 fans throughout the four-day weekend to celebrate some of the best bluegrass and Americana music around. The weekend was packed with beautiful and energetic music that reflected the well-loved Doc Watson, who founded the festival in his son’s name.
Highlights of Thursday included an afternoon set from Donna the Buffalo with special guests Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale. To kick off the evening, western North Carolina natives Steep Canyon Rangers got the crowd excited for American music legend, John Prine, whose set endured over an hour. Then Love Cannon lit up the Dance Tent with their bluegrass take on 70s and 80s hits, closing with Prince’s “Purple Rain”, a beautiful ending to a beautiful day of music.
Friday was yet another day full of amazing music. Foghorn String Band set the standards high with an early afternoon set at the Hillside Stage, and then the crowd moved to the Walker Center for a set with The Waybacks. To follow there was a Merlefest Veterans set with Sam Bush, Jack Lawrence and Joe Smothers, each of whom have attended all 29 years of Merlefest. This was a nostalgic set for the artists because of the long time connection they have had with the festival and the Watson family. To pay tribute to Doc Watson, they played “The Thrill is Gone”, a blues favorite of Doc’s. The Kruger Brothers played a tantalizing set that might as well been named Kruger Brothers and Friends, with Sam Bush sitting in on the entirety of the set and later an appearance by Maynard Holbrook and Peter Rowan, and banjo aficionado Allison Brown. On the Watson Stage, Jerry Douglas played a set full of funk, with his own adaption on the popular Johnny Cash hit, “I got Stripes”. Headlining act Old Crow Medicine Show ended Friday night with a set that had everyone’s feet stomping to fan favorites and watching in awe when the band invited a nearby tap dancing celebrity to perform on stage.
Saturday morning started off with a short set from Jeff Little Trio, Scythian later picking up the pace to get the day rolling. Nashville songwriting legend Jim Lauderdale also graced the Hillside Stage with his presence. For the attendees who love the mandolin, there was a Mando Mania set featuring Tony Williamson, Sam Bush, Andrew Marlin, Stephen Mougin and Wilkesboro’s 14 year-old mandolin star, Jonah Horton. The evening started off with the notorious Merlefest set, The Album Hour hosted by the Waybacks. Many artists joined the stage including Sam Bush and John Oates. The Kruger Brothers made their second appearance of the weekend on the Watson Stage, and later The Wood Brothers made their first Merlefest appearance on the Hillside Stage. The headliners that fans were most excited about on Saturday evening were John Oates, Sam Bush and the Dave Rawlings Machine.
Sunday was full of rain, but that did not stop veteran Merlefest-goers from enjoying the stacked lineup. The morning began with a gospel hour featuring North Carolina native Jim Avett of The Avett Brothers. Donna the Buffalo also played their final set of the weekend and had the crowd stomping in the mud. The women of bluegrass were also represented on Sunday afternoon with banjo picker Brandi Carlile playing the Main Stage and the renowned mandolin player, Sierra Hull, playing on the Cabin Stage shortly after. There was no better way to close out the weekend than with Grammy award winner, Jason Isbell. Ending with such a talented artist who brought his best only foreshadowed the amazing lineup that the 30th Merlefest is sure to bring.
The four day-weekend at Merlefest was filled with rain and sunshine, tears from missing the past, and smiles for what is to come in the future. The 29th year of the festival only proved to fans that nothing is slowing down, only getting better.
Written by Sarah King