Some folks would say that Lindsay Craven has the best job imaginable. After all, as the Artist Relations Manager for MerleFest, she’s the person responsible for booking the artists that play that fabled festival year after year. Still, while some acts are a given due to a longterm relationship with the event, lining up the nearly 100 performers that are scheduled to appear over the course of its four days — in the case of the 2022 event, from Thursday, April 28 through Sunday, May 1 — not only takes planning, but an inordinate amount of logistics, negotiations, and coordination.
Craven says that much of the effort has to do with an artist’s availability. “We’ve got a running wish list,” she explains. “It’s one that our programming team adds to and removes from as necessary. They meet regularly, and then we try to go after some of those artists that we always keep an eye on, keeping in mind which acts are doing really well on the IBM chart, and who are making waves with roots music and who’s drawing the crowds. Naturally, we pay attention to that. I also keep an eye on what’s trending on social media because we find a lot of up-and- coming performers that way. We also have a lot of people who reach out to us as well. We work with our agents at the various agencies, and they send us pitch lists. We review those and see who makes a good match for the year. It’s all about filling in the blanks with what best matches the individual stages that we need to put somebody on. So we have to take that into consideration as well. If it’s a dance stage, you’re not going to put a singer songwriter there.”
Still, for all the logic and logistics, Craven notes that other factors can enter into the equation as well. “Sometimes we get really lucky,” she reflects. “For example, Sturgill Simpson’s team reached out to us and said he was wanting to tour bluegrass festivals because he has a new bluegrass album out. So all of a sudden, he’s at the top of his list. Sometimes we luck out in a situation like that.”
She adds that even the number of artists can vary from year to year. “Before we changed our times and shortened our mornings a bit, we used to have over 100 artists. But now that the music starts later, about 11:00 a.m., we have shorter morning slots than we used to. So it’s not consistent or an exact number every year, because budgets and scheduling dictates what we can do. This year, I believe the last count I had, which does not include our band contestants, was about 92 artists. So usually, it’s anywhere between 80 and 100.”
One of the groups making their debut at MerleFest 2022 is the all-female bluegrass band known as Sister Sadie. The group, which currently consists of fiddler Deanie Richardson, banjo player and vocalist Gena Britt, bassist and vocalist Hasee Ciaccio, guitarist and vocalist Jaelee Roberts, and Mary Meyer on mandolin and vocals, is now celebrating the tenth year of first forming the band with their illustrious alumni, Dale Ann Bradley and Tina Adair.
“It’s been such an amazing ride,” Richardson remarks. “We talk about this often. It’s just been so organic. We don’t have a team around us. We don’t really have management or a publicist. We’ve not had any of that for the last nine years. We don’t even have a booking agent. We’ve done it all in-house. We started out as five middle-aged hormonal women, and did it all ourselves. The goal was never to go out and tour and do a bunch of dates. We were five friends who’ve known each other our whole lives. We went to the Station Inn in Nashville one night and did a gig, We’d never all worked together, but we just wanted to see what it would be like. And it went really well, and we had a great show and we got some great feedback. Then I started getting calls to go and play some other places, so we decided, well, let’s go play and, and it just organically grew from that. I often joke about what would happen if we really sat down and hired a team and said, ‘This is what we’re going to do and we should go for it.’ Instead, this all just kind of happened and we’re very blessed and very grateful for the success that this band has had. It just became our passion, even though we never intended for things to end up this way.”
Notably then, each of the members sill maintain their solo careers. “We all do other things so it’s not like we’ve ever committed full time to Sister Sadie,” Richardson says. “But it still works out because Sadie comes first. We feel like our other projects kind of ride on Sadie’s coattails, because without Sadie we don’t feel like we would have our individual success. That’s kind of our philosophy.”
Indeed it’s served them well. The group garnered a Grammy nomination and became the first all-female group to be awarded Vocal Group of the Year at the 2019 IBMA Awards, before winning it again in 2020 along with IBMA’s Entertainer of the Year Award.
Nevertheless, the group has evolved. When Bradley and Adair left the band to pursue their solo careers full time, Meyers, and Roberts were recruited in their place. “With every new member, the sound changes,” Richardson observes. “Still, you try to keep the original Sister Sadie sound intact, and whatever your dreams and goals were in the beginning, you try to keep those alive as well. Still, there’s no doubting or denying that the sound is gonna change when you bring in any new person. No one’s ever going to sound exactly like Dale Ann Bradley or Tina Adair. Their singing and playing are so unique. It’s a good and a bad thing. You respect the original sound that you had and that you loved, but then you just have to re-embrace the new sound that’s been brought in and figure out how to incorporate it into the band’s delivery.”
Not surprisingly then, Richardson says that she’s excited about the group’s present line-up, which is what they’ll be sharing when they make their debut at MerleFest. “I gotta tell you, I’m pumped, and ready to go,” she says. “It may be different, but it’s still Sister Sadie. It’s still hard- driving. The vocals definitely share a different sound, but they’re still great. I’m just excited. We rearranged some old things and learned a bunch of new things. And we’re actually about to go start a new record. Gina and I are the original two, and now we’ve got a 20 year old, a 24 year old, and a 30 year old in the band. It’s an interesting dynamic. They’re great players and great singers, and all of us love great music and great songs. I feel like the energy that we have with this combo is really so positive and it’s full of light and love, and we’re ready to just go out and make some music and have fun.”
Still, the fact that they’re introducing the new line-up at MerleFest during their first ever appearance could be cause for some trepidation. Richardson admits as much.
“It’s always scary when someone leaves, especially someone who’s been in the band from the original get-go, someone who helped create your signature sound,” she admits. “You wonder is the audience gonna love it, are the critics gonna love it? And just how are we going to move this forward? Still, I gotta tell ya, I don’t have any doubts anymore. I don’t have any fear anymore. I’m just ready to go do it. I really love these girls and I love the new energy and the young energy they’re bringing to it. Their ideas are great. I know that. It’s always good to be hit upside the head with some new young excitement.”
That said, she knows that the band has a high bar to meet. “We haven’t had a record since our second album came out in 2018, and the fact that it was nominated for a Grammy certainly set a high bar,” she notes. “That in itself is a bit intimidating. But we’ll just go out and do our best and do what we do. I feel like anything you put your heart and soul into will offer opportunity to succeed. This is just something that came to us as beautifully and organically as I can ever have hoped for. That’s a musician’s dream right there.”
As for Craven, she says she’s also thrilled to introduce Sister Sadie to the festival’s audience. “I think it’s always exciting to bring in an all-female group,” she observes. “I think that’s something that’s definitely improving in the bluegrass world. Unfortunately, it’s still kind of a niche to have an all-female group, but it’s also great to one that’s doing as well as they are, and getting the respect that they deserve. So I’m really excited to see Sister Sadie. For me, as a female booking person, I try to be very mindful of making sure that we’ve got female representation, diversity in our lineup and that everybody gets the equal recognition they deserve.”
Craven can appreciate that from her own experience. She started in her current position as Artist Relations Manager in 2018, although she originally started working with the festival as a college intern studying at Appalachian State University in 2007. She’s worked with the festival in some capacity ever since.
After the perils of the pandemic caused a cancellation in 2020 and a shift in scheduling last year, she’s more optimistic than ever that this year’s MerleFest will be one of the best ever.
“I think that this year’s line-up has a nice throwback to our roots and what a lot of our original fans have come to love,” she says. “We have a lot of roots, a lot of bluegrass, a lot of our tried and true artists that our audiences have asked for year after year but that we haven’t had back in a while. And, of course, we have some great new artists that are joining us as well.”
You can hear the current lineup of Sister Sadie in this video of their recent performance at The Bluegrass Hall of Fame & Museum in Owesnboro, KY.