Having grown up in the culturally rich region of the southern Appalachian Mountains, a certain tradition has been with me my entire life: the one, the only, MerleFest. Starting the year I was born in 1988, my family has ever since held residency at each MerleFest. For the past 20 years we have held down the nineteenth row with a web of family and friends that reaches across generations. As children we played in the park and arts and crafts area, and ran around the petting zoo while our parents planned their days around such a musically expansive event. As I aged into the festival, my mind shifted focus toward the music and the genuinely unique experience that MerleFest offers. My first memories of truly loving live music in general happened at MerleFest. Memories of dancing with my family along side Donna the Buffalo in the late night dance tent, of experiencing the first album hour with The Waybacks and friends, of hearing Doc Watson tell stories about his son and the rambling and gambling they used to get into – these are the experiences I will never forget. These are the moments that create not just music fans, but music fanatics.
Attending this festival is much like marrying this festival, as my family did, holding to the vow of more than 20 consecutive years. So, let’s preview this mega event with a traditional wedding riddle.
MerleFest is more than just a festival. It’s a tribute to Doc Watson’s son who died at a young age, it’s a fundraiser for Wilkes Community College, and it’s a homecoming and gathering for musicians from all over the world. Doc himself explained his intentions for the festival best: “When Merle and I started out we called our music ‘traditional plus,’ meaning the traditional music of the Appalachian region, plus whatever other styles we were in the mood to play. Since the beginning, the people of the college and I have agreed that the music of MerleFest is a traditional plus.” This allowed the festival to encompass more than one style, be it bluegrass, Celtic, old-time rag or Delta blues. The template he created shed light on the roots of American music seeding from the greater Appalachian region. For 29 years now, musicians have gathered in the little town of Wilkesboro, North Carolina to carry on this tradition of lifting American music to new heights.
Every year we expect some familiar faces. Allstars like Allison Kraus, Emmylou Harris, Jerry Douglas, Del McCoury, and Béla Fleck are regulars at the festival. These artists fulfill a unique role in the festival, to not only bring their talent, but to show and inspire a younger generation of musicians to fill their shoes. One name amongst the veteran allstars that always shines at MerleFest is Sam Bush. Not only will he headline a full set with his band, but he will sit in and jam with nearly any band that has room for him. Every time you see Bush, he could be on a different stage with a different band and playing a multitude of instruments. Keep an eye out for this curly headed picker, you might even find him standing next to you in line or walking between stages with music on his mind.
Being such a wide-ranging festival, the majority of each year’s lineup includes new bands. Some are found in the rich local talent pool, while others come as far as California and Ireland. This year, MerleFest is once again showcasing some of the future stars of the musical world. Hailing from the streets of San Fransisco, Front Country is the band to look out for. They follow the same template as most string bands, yet each member offers a different background within the music scene. Over the past two years they have developed their own unique sound that is on the verge of a cult following. With their most recent album release, Other Love Songs, the band showcases singer and songwriter Melody Walker. Be sure to catch this band Saturday at 4:15 p.m. on the Watson Stage, and a very promising set at the late night Dance Tent later that night.
Another group not to miss is the duo 10 String Symphony. Gaining momentum and recognition in the Nashville music scene, they have been described by NPR as “the newest and most promising voices in Americana.” Combining Illinois state-champ fiddler Rachel Baiman with the talents of Christian Sedelmyer, also a fiddler in the Jerry Douglas Band, they have captured audiences with their larger than life sound and beautiful harmonies. Look out for them all day Saturday starting with an early morning set at the Hillside Stage, and ending later in the evening at the Cabin Stage.
This year we will celebrate one of MerleFest’s most coveted traditions, The Album Hour, brought to you by west coast folk rockers, The Waybacks. The Waybacks, along with their many MerleFest friends that they invite on stage, tackle full album covers of some of rock n’ roll’s greatest, including choice picks from the discographies of The Allman Brothers, Led Zeppelin, and Bruce Springsteen. Fans follow clues, and the speculation and rumor mill surrounding which album or band they are going to cover this year is the underlying buzz throughout the festival. Be prepared to claim your ground as early as possible, as the majority of festival goers take over the Hillside Stage for the show at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday.
Another cover set will be brought to you by The Avett Brothers, who will pay tribute to the music of Doc Watson. The Brothers claim MerleFest as their starting grounds, that it pushed them forward into very successful musical careers. Just over a decade ago they were playing on small stages outside the festival grounds, and now the Avetts can fill large venues and two earned spots on the main Watson Stage. We can expect a variety of guests as we hear new takes on older songs. Doc and Merle will surely be hanging out side stage in spirit.
Some days at Merle Fest you find yourself bouncing around all 13 stages and tents, attempting to not miss a second of good music. Other days you find your self camped up at one stage all day with full satisfaction. Friday’s schedule at the main Watson Stage is one of the best we have seen in years. Peter Rowan starts the run in mid afternoon. A true veteran of the festival, we can expect many guests on stage and maybe even a few stories from years past.
Following next on the schedule will be one of the highlights of the weekend. Jerry Douglas, Jedi dobro player, and Aly Bain, violin/fiddle virtuoso, started a project called the Transatlantic Sessions. Gathering up some of their friends, with roots from both sides of the Atlantic, they created a platform to preform traditional songs with different instrumentation. Typically taking place in remote towns in the UK, this year the sessions have chosen MerleFest. Douglas and Bain will be inviting guests James Taylor, Sarah Jarosz, John Doyle, and many more. This is bound to be a once in a lifetime set, and promises those magical MerleFest moments, rain or shine.
Following the Sessions will be the Steep Canyon Rangers, bringing true North Carolina bluegrass that has been gaining recognition and fame across the country. The Rangers can be seen on three different stages Friday, but their final set brings them to the main stage to begin the night’s festivities.
MerleFest gets another gift with the return of Leftover Salmon, who will close out Friday night. In their 25 years as a band, they have shown influences from nearly every American music genre, going from blues to jazz to country all in one set. As they have gained much recognition in the jam and festival scene, MerleFesters can expect some of the weekend’s best jammers and pickers to be invited up on stage. Salmon will certainly fulfill and expand upon the idea of “Traditional Plus,” showing MerleFest how to end the night right.
Written by William Crowell