MerleFest 2017

Merlefest is consistently named in Top 10 lists when it comes to roots music events in the US, and I was lucky enough, after several years absence, to pay a return visit to the festival, which was celebrating its thirty year anniversary.

The festival started in 1988 as a one off tribute to Doc Watson’s son Merle, who had been tragically killed in a tractor accident. Those veterans from the first festival still tell stories about playing on the back of a flat bed truck. That first event was such a success that it has been developed over the years to where it now welcomes almost 100,000 attendees over four days. Wilkes Community College (nestling in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in southern Appalachia) continues to be the festival location, and the college benefits financially from the event. 

The music encompasses what Doc described as ‘traditional plus’ – anything from bluegrass, old time, folk, blues, rock and beyond. Merlefest prides itself as being a family friendly event, and therefore alcohol and drugs are not allowed on campus. Those who struggle with this policy will be  relieved to know that you can indulge in your choice of poison once you get outside the grounds! I did find this policy somewhat restrictive initially, but I have to acknowledge that the atmosphere throughout the huge festival campus is the safest and most welcoming that I have experienced anywhere. 

Day One (at last):

This is the easiest day to negotiate because there are only three stages in operation.

Jack Lawrence is revered by the festival regulars, being Doc Watson’s side man for most of the years after Merle’s passing, but also recognised as a solo performer in his own right. Therefore it was only fitting that he was one of the artists to open the proceedings on the Cabin Stage. He is one of the smoothest finger pickers out there, and is no mean singer either. He invited his son Adam to guest with him again this year - I predict we’ll be hearing more from this young man.

Mountain Heart then played a set on the adjacent (permanent) Watson Main Stage. While they are technically proficient, I felt they were somewhat lacking in soul - I wonder if this could be because they don’t feature a banjo?!

The same could never be said of the Del McCoury Band, who unfortunately only had one set here this year. What an incredible performance they put on! What other band do you know that has the confidence to ask for and fulfil requests from their huge back catalogue while they’re in the middle of their set? 

They’re one of the hardest working bands in bluegrass, despite Del’s 78 years. He shows no sign of slowing down, luckily. I was pleased to note that Ronnie is developing a singing voice that is almost as good as his father’s. Del continues to sing tragic songs with that big smile on his face – he can’t help himself because he’s clearly enjoying himself so much.

Next up were a North Carolina duo that are by now quite familiar to European and especially Irish audiences – Mandolin Orange. However, this time Andrew and Emily were joined by their full band – drums, bass and electric guitar. Any fears I had that they might have lost their essence with these additions were completely allayed from the opening song. Still gorgeously restrained, their three part harmonies were exquisite. They amazingly had lost none of that musical intimacy that is one of their hallmarks. An all original set, including some old timey instrumentals, was finished with the achingly beautiful ‘Take This Heart Of Gold’ from their most recent album, Blind Faller, with Emily swapping over to electric guitar.

The night was closed out by the ever popular local boys, The Avetts. The boys grew up on gospel music, Merlefest and Doc Watson. Their father Jim (of whom more anon) is a well known local gospel singer, and is rightly proud of Scott and Seth’s huge success. I remember seeing them for the first time at my first Merlefest in 2003, and shaking my head as I walked past the screaming fans and wondering what the all fuss was about. Over the intervening years, though, I have to admit that I’ve come around to liking them as they evolved into the supergroup that they are now. They played a two hour set to round off the night – to be honest, I feel they could have condensed it down to a sublime one hour set – but the crowd loved it all! 

Day Two:

There are two major hurdles to negotiate today – the unseasonal heat and humidity AND the dilemma of trying to see everything! There are 13 stages of music so it is impossible to see all the acts, however most of the acts play several sets over the course of the festival, so I got to see everyone I really wanted to.

The joy of Merlefest though is that you can find yourself stumbling across a performer or band or collaboration that are new to you and you get so carried away that it throws your well planned schedule!

My morning began with excellent sets from The Stray Birds and Peter Rowan. Sierra Hull then took to the main stage. Having grown up at Merlefest (I remember seeing her here as a child prodigy not so many years ago) and being one of the best mandolin players on the scene, Sierra has taken her music down a more avant garde route. She played much of her set on electric mandolin, accompanied by an upright bass, and while I admire her musicianship, I’m not sure about the musical route she has taken.

I trotted up the hill to the indoor Walker Centre theatre which was jammed for the Merlefest Veterans set led by Jack Lawrence. He was joined this time by old friends Sam Bush, Peter Rowan, percussionist Pat McInerney and banjoist Scott Vestal. The craic was mighty - these maestros have played together in various combinations since they were in their teens.

Next it’s back to the outdoor natural amphitheatre that is the Hillside stage, where I meet up with Richard Hurst of the Ulster-American Folk Park. We enjoyed a fabulous set from another NC band that is well known to Irish audiences – Chatham County Line. As always, the sound quality at all the Merlefest stages (indoord and out) is world class, with smooth swift changeovers and nothing ever running late.

We stayed put at that stage to see Sam Bush joining another supergroup (who has also played Richard’s Omagh bluegrass festival) the Steep Canyon Rangers. Still with the same line up as when they started out , they have lost none of their energy, and were joined for their set by mandolinist and fiddle player extraordinaire, Sam Bush. Sam was everywhere today – equalling Jim Lauderdale’s notoriety for playing with everyone on every stage at this festival!

The excitement had been building all day for the next performance – the first time the Transatlantic Sessions Tour had played outside of Britain & Ireland. This coming together of some of the best Scottish/Irish/English/American roots musicians began as a tv series in 1995, and plays every year at Celtic Connections Festival in Glasgow. The audience loved it – the headlining artist was another NC native, Mr James Taylor. Also featured were Maura O’Connell, the wonderful Sarah Jarosz, and Declan O’Rourke, whose particular brand of Irish banter went down a storm with the audience.

After chairman Jim Lauderdale announced the winners of the prestigious Chris Austin Songwriting Contest (former winners have included then unknowns such as Gillian Welch & Tift Merritt) it was back to the main stage for an even more electrifying set from Steep Canyon Rangers.  

Weary though I was, I left the closing set from jam band Leftover Salmon and hot footed it to the Dance Tent for an unusual but stunning offering from Chatham County Line – this recent side project (Electric Holiday) allows them to indulge their more punk/rock origins and they used their vintage electric instruments to wow the full and reverberating dance tent to full effect! Definitely a festival highlight for me.

Day Three:

I hit the festival main stage bright and early for our own I Draw Slow. Now signed to Alison and Garry Brown’s Nashville based Compass record label, the band have been building a steady fan base by having already played several times Stateside. It was heartening to see the welcoming reception they received from an audience who were quite clearly fans, and I’d say they gained many more with their performance today.

Another favourite with Irish audiences and also a NC native, Tift Merritt (with baby backstage) gave her usual spirited performance, accompanied only by Eric Heywood on pedal steel.

I braved the heat to see the traditionalist supergroup the Earls of Leicester on the American stage, and then fought/climbed my way up the thronged Hillside stage to eventually find a place on the grass to see the Avetts start their Songs of Doc set. The intense heat and humidity drove me indoors to the welcome air conditioning of the Walker Theatre again. There I enjoyed a superb showcase from Irish folk guitar maestro John Doyle (why is he not better known in his native country?) at the Compass showcase. He then brought on his guests Mike McGoldrick and John McCusker who got a chance to wow the packed theatre with their traditional Irish/Scottish chops.

Next it was over to the outdoor Creekside stage for another of the festival’s beloved features - Tony Williamson’s Mandomania. Tony is another Merlefest veteran – a mandolin historian as well as a phenomenal player (he has also played the Omagh bluegrass festival, along with Jack Lawrence, in the recent past). Tony curates this unique offering every year – he brings together well established players like Sam Bush etc and always manages to find one or two of the next generation of players and gives them the opportunity to play with their idols, probably for the first time. The Merlefest audience loves this event, and it is always standing room only. Tony remembers inviting a relatively unknown Californian boy called Chris Thile to play Mandomania – since then they have become good friends. This year the star lineup includes the ubiquitous Sam Bush, Sierra Hull, Darn Aldridge, along with relative newcomers Casey Campbell and Tommy Norris.

The Reunion Jam on the Main stage was fun as well as seriously impressive musically. It brought together the geniuses that are Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas, Mark Schatz and Bryan Sutton. Much hilarity ensued, culminating in the very rare event of Bela Fleck singing a song (I kid you not)! I returned to the Creekside briefly to catch the end of Peter Rowan’s set, this time with a fuller lineup which included old friend Jack Lawrence.

One of the festivals’ annual highlights was next, and the Hillside was now dangerously packed with thousands of punters all anxiously anticipating the best kept secret of the weekend – the Hillside Album Hour. Every year, Californian band the Waybacks plot and plan the performance of a classic rock or pop album. They drop cryptic hints on social media in the run up, but mostly no one manages to guess until they hear the first chords. Usual host Jim Lauderdale introduced the band along with special guests. The main vocalist this year was Celia Woodsmith of the now disbanded Della Mae. From the minute she opened her mouth we were blown away by this soul powerhouse – certainly she was a revelation to me. And the album featured was … Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band. One of the surprise guests was mandolinist Tony Williamson, who featured on When I’m 64 – because he was about to celebrate his 64th birthday! Other guests included Jens Kruger and Sam Bush.

I caught the end of Bela Fleck’s solo set on the Americana stage.

Next highlight was the Guitar Jam hosted by Jack Lawrence. This was a joy for finger picking fans – joining Jack were Bryan Sutton, Stephen Mougin, Tommy Edwards and Steve Lewis.

The indefatigable and hugely popular Sam Bush then took to the mainstage for his powerhouse of a set with his full band.

I’m afraid this reporters little legs were beginning to fade after the day’s intense heat and humidity, and I was barely able to stay awake after Jorma Kaukonen’s lovely set on the Cabin Stage.

I wandered back to my motel with the sounds of  Donna The Buffalo’s jam to accompany me home, but not before I popped in to the Dance Stage to see I Draw Slow playing a blinder to the still eager dancers.

Day Four:

Sunday came all too soon. I was up in time to get to the Creekside stage to see The Gospel Hour with Jim Avett. Jim had already told me about the gospel album he’s been recording with son Seth on production duties. Apparently Seth is a stickler of a producer (according to his proud father!)  but it seems like they might have recorded a cracker. 

The boys and bassist Bob Crawford joined Jim and his daughter Bonnie on stage to complete a pleasant set of traditional gospel songs. 

Mipso took over the Hillside next for an interesting set, which included a nice version of Guy Clark’s Dublin Blues, a tribute to the master songwriter who we lost during the year. Mipso are being touted as the “next big thing” to come out of the Chapel Hill thriving music scene – definitly ones to watch.

Jim Lauderdale played a short set on the Cabin stage, with Tony Williamson as guest. 

Next up was the band that I had been most eagerly awaiting – and they didn’t disappoint – Marty Stuart and his Fabulous Superlatives. 

My words cannot do justice to the living legends that comprise this combo, fronted by the most amazing of them all. They fuse the best of rock and roll, country, rockabilly, gospel, bluegrass, soul and blues into an indefinable thing of beauty. Not even the intrusive arrival of Zac Brown’s helicopter over the trees was able to throw them off their stride.

The day ended with the aforementioned Zac Brown (another NC native) who took to the Main stage with four band memebers for an acoustic set. 

All in all, another successful Merlefest had concluded. 

If you ever get the chance to attend, I can highly recommend it, but it takes some logistical preplanning. Acommodation is booked up a year in advance by regulars. Probably camping is the cheapest option if you can organise that. Alternatively, you can hire a house/cabin locally, but a car is then essential. 

Nearest airports are Charlotte or Raleigh-Durham, all of which necessitate car hire also.

Worth putting on that bucket list though!

Review and photography by Eilís Boland