The last weekend of April marked the 30th anniversary of MerleFest, making it the biggest and most exciting one yet. Each year, more than 75,000 patrons, staff, and volunteers come to Wilkesboro, North Carolina to enjoy an array of the top bluegrass and Americana artists that the world has to offer.
The rainy weather on Thursday afternoon did not keep the festival from kicking off into full gear. Jack Lawrence, an original MerleFest Five member, marked the start of the weekend at the Cabin Stage. After thirty years, he was both excited and in awe about the growth of the festival. He shared his memories of the early years, including playing on the back of a flatbed truck on the front lawn of Wilkes Community College, celebrating Merle Watson’s life with his closest friends. He went on to play classics such as “Eight More Miles To Louisville” and “I’m A Lover Of The Bayou.”
IBMA and Grammy nominated Mountain Heart took the stage, marking their fourth visit to MerleFest. Members of this band grew up in the foothills of North Carolina, and spent their youth coming to the festival and playing in the singer-songwriter competitions that the festival offers. It was an honoring and humbling experience for them to play on the Doc and Merle Watson Stage again. The band kept to their roots while also adding in some blues-inspired tunes, including their hit, “Blue Skies,” featuring Josh Shilling on the keyboard. They ended their time on the stage with a cover of Steely Dan’s “Reelin’ In The Years,” and then Bob Dylan’s “Maggie’s Farm.” Mountain Heart’s enthusiasm throughout the performance showed that they were honored to have the stage.
Bluegrass legend and longtime MerleFest alumni, Del McCoury took the main stage next. Del shared his excitement for being back at the festival after a couple of years, and went on to describe his memory of his first time playing with the legendary Doc Watson. The experience he shared with Doc taught him the meaning of being a fearless musician and guitar player, bleeding into the remainder of his career. At the beginning of the set, Del expressed his concern about his allergies affecting performance, but his moral and stamina were high and mighty as usual. He and the Del McCoury Band went on to play classic songs like “Vincent Black Lightning,” “All Aboard,” “Rain And Snow,” and “Asheville Turnaround.”
Later in the evening, The Avett Brothers‘ long awaited set finally hit the Main Stage. The rain didn’t keep the the festival goers from showing their love to the North Carolina natives. The Avett’s upbeat tunes had everyone stomping their feet in the mud as they played hits from their new album, while also tying in old fan favorites such as, “Murder In The City,” and “I And Love And You.” The band also played covers of George Harrison’s “Give Me Love” and Merle Haggard’s “Mama Tried,” sending the crowd into cahoots.
Friday was a day full of sunshine, warm weather and great tunes. Peter Rowan, a bluegrass icon and MerleFest fan favorite, appeared on the main stage and the Americana Stage, giving the crowd two great sets to remember. Shortly after Rowan’s first set, Pete Wernick aka Dr. Banjo hosted a Flexigrass Jam over on the Creekside stage featuring Steep Canyon Rangers’ fiddling maniac, Nicky Sanders. This was a jam that displayed classic bluegrass style with an eccentric twist that left the crowd mesmerized by the brilliant sound that was created.
Other noteworthy acts Friday afternoon included the classic MerleFest Veterans Jam in Walker Center, where Jack Lawrence, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan and Joe Smothers took the stage together, displaying how great their chemistry is after so many years of playing together at MerleFest. Sierra Hull, 2016 Mandolin Player of The Year, brought her inspiring melodies and lyrics to the Main Stage, playing many great tunes from her new album Weighted Mind. Hull also did her take on Gary Jules’ “Mad World,” and also played a cover of “You Wanna Give Me a Lift,” written by one of her icons, Loretta Lynn.
Later in the afternoon, North Carolina natives Chatham County Line and Steep Canyon Rangers each had the honor of playing two sets. The Steep Canyon Rangers first said was planned to feature their good friend and frequent musical partner, Del McCoury, but he was unfortunately unable to make it. But, the crowd was not left disappointed when the King of MerleFest, Sam Bush, filled in the void. The festival was full of groundbreaking collaborations, including the The Transatlantic Sessions Tour featuring the best folk/celtic musicians from the United Kingdom and United States. The set was hosted by Jerry Douglas and Aly Bain with special guests James Taylor, Sarah Jarosz, Maura O’Connell, Declan O’Rourke, Karen Matheson, Joe Newberry and The Transatlantic Orchestra.
The quintessential MerleFest memory from Friday night was the long awaited performance from Leftover Salmon, whose last appearance at MerleFest was close to twenty years prior. The set was full of Salmon’s rowdy tunes to boogie down to, including their staple songs “Deep River Blues,” “Down In The Hollow,” and “Sing Up To The Moon.” The set included a special appearance from Sam Bush, who added an eccentric twist with his fiddle skills.
Day three of MerleFest turned into an all out musical marathon. The star-studded lineup expanded across the entire 13 stages of the festival. The sun was blazing, reaching temperatures near 90 degrees, causing a casual competition to occupy all shaded space, yet in the traditional family vibe of the festival, most were glad to share their shaded relief.
First stop of the marathon was to join the herd funneling toward the Hillside Stage. Here The Avett Brothers returned to the spotlight after a fan favorite Thursday set, packed full of originals and classic covers. Their Hillside set would be a tribute to Doc Watson, who helped inspire the Avetts musical career saying, “He is everywhere in our music.” Nearly 10,000 fans filed into the hill, though a few tumbled and blankets nearly turned into sleds because of the steep grade, it was well worth it to catch one of Americana’s best bands pay tribute where tribute was due. In their 90 minute set they pulled 22 songs out of the Doc Watson songbook including “Alberta,” a chilling “Am I Bound To Die” and a classic outlaw song called “Wanted Man” that the Avetts featured on their Live Vol. 2 album.
Leaving one packed out stage only to come across a smaller and equally as crowded stage gave me the realization of just how large this festival has gotten. The crowd formed around the Creekside Stage spreading all the way into the shaded woods to catch another MerleFest tradition. Mando Mania provided on of the most unique experiences of the weekend. Featuring 6 mandolin pickers all sitting in a row, including Sam Bush, Tony Williamson, and Sierra Hull. Passing along introductions as well as solos, the Mania gave each artist a chance to pick a song and show off the wide range of unique styles that this little instrument can offer. Sam Bush, sporting a shirt with the big bold words “PEACE” on the front and “FREEDOM” on the back, took the show away when he pulled out “East Tennessee Blues,” and expressed a politically charged theme that would continue throughout the weekend.
With the marathon of Saturday over, Sundays are for thanks and winding down. The entire festival had a more laid back feel, from artist to fans, the fatigue of the weekend had kicked in. Bands were beginning to lose their voices, sets became sit down and stripped down. The sun was still blazing, but with a cooler wind and smaller crowd, finding shade was no longer a battle.
Starting our day off was Donna the Buffalo’s last and sixth set of the weekend. Both band members had nearly lost their voices, even with an appreciative fan bringing them throat lozenges, the set became more laid back and jammy. Jed continued with is west coast style guitar solos that had people moving in their seats and shared is speeches of the importance of artistic expression in this day and time, but by now he was preaching to the choir.
The Kruger Brothers, after a long weekend of bluegrass, brought out their Kontras Quartet, showing of some of their more classical music skills. Playing exerts form Mozart and Beethoven, they put on a sort of Merlefest Fantasia. The Brothers weld the banjo and acoustic bass, with the addition of two guitars, three fiddles and a cello. Their symphonic encore showed hints of Irish jig, bringing the crowd to a deserved standing ovation for these Merlefest regulars.
A slow stroll to the Hillside Stage brought us to The Steel Wheels. This tight genera bending group from the mountains of Virginia, wrote songs that reflect the hardships of mountain life, most notably the industrial coal mining of the area. In their title track of the new album “Wild As We Came” they touch on themes of coal mining and corrupt land management rights have effected those beautiful rolling mountains. The lead singer introduced their own festival call the Red Wing Roots Festival. He told the story of their first MerleFest and how it inspired them to take the “traditional plus” music festival idea to their hometown, causing the sudden realization of Merlefest’s impact on small roots festivals across Appalachia.
For my first step into the Tradition Tent, attendees were graced with the presence of the legendary Peter Rowan. With roots all the way back to Bill Monroe, Rowan told the story of the development of country and bluegrass through his songs and covers. He started us off with slow yodels by Jimmy Rogers that he called “Hawian blues country”. Off in the distance I began to hear what this music would transform to in time with the lyric, “I wish I was a headlight, on a northbound train.” Quickly I dashed toward the Watson Stage for my surprise big show of the weekend.
Taking over the stage would be the one and only Marty Stuart and His Fabulous Superlatives. At first glance, those who didn’t know would brush them off as some kind of generic Nashville cover bands, with their matching black suits, cowboy hats, and the presence of bell bottoms. Those familiar with this country legend pair him in the same boots as Hank Williams and Johnny Cash, pushing the boundaries of country music into new realms. After a poetic introduction of the band, Marty called Wilkesboro the “surf music capital of the world” and they broke into a “Kill Bill” style California surfer jam from their new album Way Out West, showcasing Kenny Von (Marty’s cousin) on electric guitar, one of Nashville’s best rapid fire honky tonkers. The band played their version of classic rock songs like the sing-a-long Dylan song “You Ain’t Going Nowhere” to the lyrically impressive “El Paso” by Marty Robbins. Each band member took center stage for both covers and originals, but Kenny Von could not help but conquer each solo with ease and style. Showing his range of talent by taking vocal lead in the song “Country Music’s Got a Hold On Me,” he challenged the likes of Jim Lauderdale for best dressed at MerleFest.
As their set came to an end a huge flux of festival goers began to move in closer to main stage. Making his name as a Nashville super star and gaining an expansive following through radio country hits, Zac Brown and his band took stage in a laid back seated set. Fans sang along through favorites like “Homegrown” and “Chicken Fried,” while going silent to hear Zac’s story of his first Merlefest as a young artist. His hometown country songs connected directly with the folks of western North Carolina and east Tennessee, each with a catchy hook and thoughtful lyrics.
The festival came to an end and after 30 years the Merlefest buzz will last for months to come. Every gift shared that weekend came from a collective effort of hundreds of volunteers and organizers, and The Poke Around would like to thank them, as well as the devoted musicians for sharing their arts and inspiring future generations. Until next year!