Recap of another amazing MerleFest

MerleFest Veterans set on Watson Stage at MerleFest on April 27, 2019 – photo by Alisa B. Cherry

Some festivals are known for their music. Others for the legacy they’ve left behind. And a few can be counted on for both.

Put MerleFest in the latter category. Named for Merle Watson at the bequest of his father, Doc Watson — and not for Merle Haggard as the less knowing often mistakenly believe — the annual event held on the sprawling campus of Wilkesboro Community College amidst the verdant mountains of North Carolina, just completed its 32nd gathering, with a line-up as impressive as any offered in the bluegrass/grassicana fold. 

While its 13 stages and/or venues allow a variety of talent to showcase their skills, like any festival of a similar size, it’s practically impossible to catch all the acts , even over the course of four days. 

Still, credit the organizers with arranging showtimes to mostly avoid conflicts and allowing multiple opportunities to see a set a second time if they’re missed the first. Plus, like most events of this type, it’s best to celebrate the acts one does get to witness rather than lament those that one isn’t able to get to. Logistics often present a problem, but like the effects of gravity, the results are unavoidable. 

There’s a similar claim every year, but this year in particular it again rings true. MerleFest 32 offered what may well be the best line-up in its history. Naturally, that means that those that have played the festival every year — or nearly every year — since the festival’s founding were back for another round. Those that can tout multiple MerleFest appearances include Sam Bush, Jim Lauderdale, Donna the Buffalo, Chatham County Line, Dirk Powell, Joe Smothers, the Del McCoury Band, the Avett Brothers, The Waybacks, Peter Rowan, the Kruger Brothers, Steep Canyon Rangers, and Jerry Douglas, among the many. Some, like Mark O’Connor made a belated return after decades away. Still others — Keb’ Mo’ in particular — provided a stunning debut. 

Regardless of whether the act happened to be a newcomer or a veteran making an anticipated reprise, the quality of the music again reigned supreme. Naturally, that was to be expected, but even when the festival holds a surprise — the Waybacks’ traditional concert on the Hillside Stage which finds them covering a classic album (this year it was Led Zeppelin 4), the Saturday Late Night Jam that offers renewed opportunity to see artists that otherwise might have been missed, Keb’ Mo’s stunning solo acoustic set that blew the crowd away, and Steep Canyon Rangers’ tribute to North Carolina’s stellar songwriters (it has, after all, been proclaimed the state’s year of music by official decree) — veteran festival goers sometimes seem to take it all in stride. After all, this is one of the friendliest family-oriented gatherings staged anywhere, and great music and enthusiastic audiences are clearly a given.

Even so, that level of anticipation doesn’t account for stellar performances that go well beyond the bounds of expectation. Scythian’s Celtic rock approach found room for a rousing rendition of Hava Nageela, while Del McCoury’s 80th birthday party on the Hillside Stage gave everyone in attendance cause for celebration. Mark and Maggie O’Connor held the crowd that gathered at the Watson Stage in awe, with little more than a pair of fiddles and occasional homespun harmonies. Peter Rowan’s latest conglomerate, his Free Mexican Airforce and Los Texmaniacs — it ought to be noted that he never fails to come up with new stage combinations — took the audience south of the border with a superb combination of Tejano, Tex Mex, and boleros. Likewise, a song sung from the prospective of a border crossing guard called Mississippi California resonated especially well given today’s turgid discussion about immigration. And, as always, Donna the Buffalo’s populist appeal was also in evidence, even with multiple performances spread throughout across the festival’s four days. 

Other artists connected even in other personal ways as well. The Milk Carton Kids may sound like the younger siblings of Simon and Garfunkel, but their onstage patter likens them more to the snider side of the Smothers Brothers. Even a bit of back and forth about Kenneth Pattengale’s cancer scare and romantic travails was played for laughs. “I don’t think he has a heart,” Pattengale said of partner Joey Ryan. For the record, Ryan didn’t disagree…

Naturally, Sam Bush is always amiable and very present. Last year, he set a personal record by doing more than a half a dozen guest appearances in the same day. This time around, he admitted that he was deliberately holding back so as not to exhaust himself like he did before. Still, that beaming grin Bush always emits just naturally conveys an infectious attitude that consistently makes him a festival favorite. 

On the other hand, some of the performers took it several steps further. Members of the band Yarn expressed their gratitude for fans by sharing multiple hugs at the autograph tent. Amos Lee carried on consistent conversations with members of the audience from the Watson Stage. Even though it’s MerleFest’s most sprawling venue, artist to audience interaction seemed quite common. For his part, the debonair Mr. Mo’ actually singled out a woman in the crowd and invited her to meet him backstage. 

Whether or not that’s part of his showbiz schtick is uncertain, but the pure exhilaration and excitement that capped the entertainment on Saturday and Sunday night provided all the allure needed. Brandi Carlile was absolutely sensational as Saturday’s closing act, and her unbounded energy and erstwhile bandmates exuded a spirit that literally had the audience gasping for breath. A medley of John Denver songs trolled the audience’s emotions, but it was the material from her Grammy-winning album By the Way, I Forgive You that helped amplify the intensity and proved what an exceptional artist she’s become. A surprise encore with Seth and Scott Avett on their troubled ballad, Murder in the City, proved even more affecting, even given the stripped down setting of a single acoustic guitar and three voices shared in harmony. 

Sunday closed the festival with a succession of standouts beginning with Steep Canyon Ranger’s aforementioned salute to the songwriters birthed in their native North Carolina — James Taylor, Elizabeth Cotton, and, surprisingly enough, Thelonious Monk, included. Not surprisingly, it was a strikingly diverse performance, and happily it was taped for an upcoming live album. The diversity seems to be an inherent part of Steep Canyon Rangers’ performances these days, given that the vocal responsibilities now extend to the newer members of the band, specifically bassist Barrett Smith and multi-instrumentalist Mike Ashworth. Indeed, it affirms the tight-knit cohesion that core members Woody Platt (vocals, guitar), Graham Sharp (vocals, banjo), Mike Guggino (mandolin, vocals) and Nicky Sanders (fiddle) have always brought to the band. Suffice it to say, there’s never been anything less than exceptional about a Steep Canyon Rangers performance. 

Jim Lauderdale, another festive favorite then took to the Cabin Stage to maintain the musical progression between Steep Canyon Rangers and the festival closers, The Avett Brothers. This time around, Lauderdale performed with a backing band, giving a freshness and fullness to his his well seasoned songs. Indeed, while the Cabin Stage is often thought of as a secondary venue, it hosted all the talent winners to good effect and also provided an ideal setting for the Kruger Brothers’ string-added show Friday night prior to the Tyler Childers’ powerful performance that came after.

It is, of course, difficult to single out any single act as one that stands out overall, but if there was such a possibility, then the honors might in fact go to the Avett Brothers. Like Brandi the night before, there’s no absence of energy in the Brothers’ performance. In fact, it’s no exaggeration to describe them as one of the most effusive live acts on the concert circuit these days. The brotherly rapport is evident, even when Scott Avett finds himself rambling on a bit and dependent on his brother Seth to swoop in and rescue him. Nevertheless, when Scott opted to climb off the stage and wander into the audience, he seemed to know exactly when it was time to resume his duties. 

“I wanted to go further out, but I guess I have to go back to work,” he joked. 

Scott’s journey into the crowd helped provide a fitting conclusion to MerleFest, especially given the comradery and good vibes the festival fosters in such abundance. It’s always sad to see MerleFest end for another year, but as Sam Bush implored the crowd after singing his song, Stop the Violence, his newly recorded ode to peaceful purpose, it’s important to carry those good vibes back home.

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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.