Memories of MerleFest 2024

The Sam Bush Band at MerleFest 2024 – photo © Alisa B. Cherry

Now celebrating its 46th year, MerleFest 2024 did  not disappoint. Founded in 1988 by the legendary Doc Watson in honor of his son Merle, and presented primarily by Window World, it’s held on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, North Carolina, and serves as a fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which pays for scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs for the college. It now ranks one of the top musical gatherings in the nation, one that inspires annual pilgrimages from the veteran faithful and newcomers alike. 

This year’s event, held Thursday, April 25th through Sunday, April 28th, was no different, and true to form, it gathered its usual array of headliners that included, as always, any number of verified legends in the bluegrass and Americana worlds. After all, Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, John Cowan, Jerry Douglas, Béla Fleck, Donna the Buffalo, the Kruger Brothers, Peter Rowan, The Waybacks, and the Steep Canyon Rangers are not only regulars, but, in fact, signature artists that helped establish this fest, and continue to represent the best the event has to offer.

Cowan has his own memories of the festival, at which he’s appeared nearly every year. “Even before I joined the band New Grass Revival, they already had a relationship with Doc and Merle,” he recalls. “Then, when Merle passed away, and they decided to have this festival in his honor, we were one of the first artists that they called. So that was beginning of my relationship here.”

Certainly, there’s no lack of choices when it comes to who to see, whether one is enticed to see the aforementioned “regulars,” or intrigued by those acts that can be considered newcomers or even novices within the entertainment offered. With nearly one hundred acts, spanning an array of diverse styles performing across twelve stages, it made for a dizzying bundle of choices, sometimes becoming frustratingly difficult when it came to mapping out a performance strategy.

That said, there were some universal themes that allowed for common bonds. The recent passing of the late Dickie Betts inspired several of the performers to inject his licks into their songs and sets. So too, Willie Nelson’s classic, Bloody Mary Morning, found its way into the repertoire of two of the acts that appeared, Donna and the Buffalo and, naturally enough, Lukas Nelson and POTR. It seemed somewhat ironic considering the fact that MerleFest is strictly a family affair and intoxicants of any sort are strictly prohibited. 

Naturally, the Watson Stage was, as always, the focal point of the festivities, given to the headliners and those that reigned at the top of the marquee. It didn’t disappoint, and the Thursday performances by those homegrown heroes, The Steep Canyon Rangers, ignited a fervor that continued through the evening’s closing set, which came courtesy of Old Crow Medicine Show’s seventh appearance at MerleFest frontman Ketch was his usual rambunctious self, and his antics amped up the crowd with his usual frenzy. In between, however, Dan Tyminski and Molly Tuttle & Golden Highway maintained serious devotion to bluegrass basics, even though Tuttle occasionally veered off into unexpected territory with compelling covers of White Rabbit, the Stones’ seminal classic, She Comes in Colors, the Doobie Brothers’ Black Water, and Neil Young’s always enticing Harvest Moon.

Day two was equally entertaining, and with Scythian playing a rousing set at the Dance Tent, they amped up a level of energy that remained at a pitch fever all day long. Festival first-timers Nick Shoulders, Buffalo Nichols, and Willi Carlisle got in the groove, although Carlisle, an a devoted and determined singer/songwriter in true folk song tradition, incited some controversy with his remarks about the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, ultimately creating an angry exchange among members of the audience. Nevertheless, all were in agreement when it came to an inspired performance by the siblings known as Larkin Poe, who literally dazzled the crowd with a sense of driving determinations, and songs that seemed simply anthemic in terms of their passion and purpose. Given their powerful electric set, one would never have guessed that they had started out in bluegrass as The Lovell Sisters. Turnpike Troubadours, who closed out the main stage activities, also impressed, given the fact that they’re a veteran combo with a solid reputation, and a natural as far as any festival celebration. 

Still, one would be remiss if they allowed themselves to be confined to Watson Stage solely. Jim Lauderdale and his band, The Game Changers, offered ample reason to catch them multiple times, and given Lauderdale’s upcoming album, My Favorite Place, and his trademark self-effacing humor, each time was a treat. The Kruger Brothers, The Earls of Leicester, Donna the Buffalo, local faves Chatham County Line and Chatham Rabbits, and newcomers Arkansauce, 14-year-old mandolin prodigy Wyatt Ellis, and husband-wife duo Goldpine, also put on sterling sets of their own, the latter ending their performance with a remarkable reprise of the National Anthem, which they recently performed at the World Series. 

“We had heard a lot about MerleFest from friends… a lot of great things,” Goldpine tells Bluegrass Today. “But our first hand experience with MerleFest exceeded our expectations! The festival was ultra-organized and run very well. We were truly honored to be a part of it. The crowd around the stage where we performed was so receptive and lovely… and it was so great not having to deal with intoxicated fans, because MerleFest in alcohol-free!”

Among those bands that shared an international flair, Langan, a lively Scottish ensemble, and JigJam, a rousing Irish quartet whose stage antics got the crowd dancing along due to their infectious celebratory spirit. 

“Our first time at MerleFest was absolutely amazing,” lead singer Jamie McKeogh of JigJam later commented. “To get to share the bill with such legendary artists such as Sam Bush, Béla Fleck, Nickel Creek, and so many more was very inspiring for us as musicians. The crowd at our sets brought a savage amount of energy and it was great to get such a positive response for our music from the festival patrons. We were looked after so well for the weekend with hospitality and also got to meet some fantastic people too. Hopefully we’ll get to go back again!”

By the time day three began, the crowd was fully primed, reinforced by those who journeyed over strictly for the weekend festivities. The day began with the so-called “Veterans Jam,” featuring Jack Lawrence, Joe Smothers, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, John Cowan, and T. Michael Coleman, with each performer given an individual spotlight and an opportunity to exemplify the reason why indeed they have earned their legendary stature. The Waybacks’ ever popular “Hillside Album Hour” seemed more eclectic than usual this year, with John Cowan singing Amazing Grace, and the ensemble proceeding into an odd mix that culled songs from Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions, while also interjecting a take on the Gordon Lightfoot standard, Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald. One still wonders how that mix was construed. 

If that seemed something of a distraction, things became considerably more focused courtesy of sets from Missy Raines & Allegheny, Them Coulee Boys, S.G. Goodman, Brandy Clark, and Béla Fleck, the latter of whom lived up to the title of his latest opus, My Bluegrass Heart. The Mondo Mani mandolin jam drove the point home. A take on the George Gershwin classic, Rhapsody in Blue, illuminated his dedication to form even further when he transformed it into Rhapsody in Bluegrass.

As always, the Sam Bush Band proved a perennial highlight. Wearing a shirt that said “Be Kind,” a good suggestion given these days of trouble and turbulence, he offered his beautiful ballad Circles Around Me as an homage to the spirit of community that MerleFest entails. Inspired by his ongoing stint at the Telluride Bluegrass Festival, it ought to namecheck MerleFest as well, especially since, as Bush himself noted, MerleFest kicks off the annual festival season.

Sam Bush is, of course, one of the happiest performers one might ever witness, given the grin that seems a perpetual part of his facial features. He, like Lauderdale, is always quick with a quip, as when he introduced his drummer Chris Brown as an “Eight-time IBMA winner in the drumming category — if there was such a thing.”

Saturday night concluded with an inspired performance by The Teskey Brothers, an Australian outfit that leaned more towards blues than bluegrass. Nevertheless, they held the crowd in awe, and the fact that most folks seemed unfamiliar with their fare only added to their mystique. 

Sunday was an abbreviated day as far as the music was concerned, but that didn’t quell the excitement or enthusiasm shared between the artists and the audience. Peter Rowan put on a fine performance while sharing his signature song, Midnight Moonlight. Donna the Buffalo and Jim Lauderdale reprised their earlier shows with spirited sets of their own. A special appearance by Lukas Nelson & POTR added some grit and groove to the proceedings, no small feat considering the fact that they had just flown in from a performance at the Stagecoach Festival where Lukas had shared the stage with his dad Willie. “It was beautiful, but out flight was delayed til 3:00 a.m.,” he told the crowd. “We just landed…and y’all are beautiful. You woke me right up.”

It was then left to Nickel Creek, playing their first MerleFest in 20 years, to close out the day and the festival overall. They were, of course, a special treat, and while MerleFest may not necessarily have saved the best for last, it was certainly a wonderful way to close out the festivities. 

“Merlefest has grown into its own thing, obviously,” John Cowan shared. “It’s MerleFest! They’ve had a lot of rock and roll here over the years, they’ve even had some pop-ish kind of country acts. The point of my mentioning that is that it’s kind of gotten a bit like Newport and the New Orleans Jazz Fest. It’s become an American institution.”

Indeed it is, and naturally then, the memories will linger, at least until next year when things kick off again. MerleFest is, as its slogan suggests, all about music, moments, and memories. As always, it holds true to that tradition. 

Share this:

About the Author

Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman has been a writer and reviewer for the better part of the past 20 years. He writes for the following publications — No Depression, Goldmine, Country Standard TIme, Paste, Relix, Lincoln Center Spotlight, Fader, and Glide. A lifelong music obsessive and avid collector, he firmly believes that music provides the soundtrack for our lives and his reverence for the artists, performers and creative mind that go into creating their craft spurs his inspiration and motivation for every word hie writes.