By Twyla Twang
May 25, 2018

Read part one of Twyla’s MerleFest recap, covering the first two days of the festival.

MerleFest was founded in 1988 in memory of the son of the late American music legend Doc Watson, renowned guitarist Eddy Merle Watson. Held April 26-29 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, N.C., the festival is a celebration of “traditional plus” music. It comprises traditional, roots-oriented sounds of the Appalachian region, including old-time, classic country, bluegrass, folk and gospel and blues, and expanded to include Americana, classic rock and many other styles.

As a first-time attendee, I can attest y’all need to make this trip at some point in your life!

Day three

Doolin’ performs at MerleFest (Photo by Ryan Case)

The MerleFest train rolled on into Day three fueled by bright and sunny Appalachian spring weather and some sweet tea.  Decisions on who to catch at what time were getting tougher!  Taking a break from the Watson stage for the first half of Saturday, I mosied between the Americana and Hillside stages.  Americana stage featured Tennessee Jed Fisher, Doolin’, Scythian, The Cleverly’s and Dead Horses.  Hillside showcased Jim Lauderdale, Town Mountain, Alison Brown and The Reunion Jam with Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Bela Fleck, Bryan Sutton and John Cowan.  I’m here to tell ya, folks that’s a wagon-full of great music!  Tennessee Jed Fisher’s “pimpgrass”, a fusion of soul, funk-rock, bluegrass and country got the crowd’s movin’ and groovin’.  Doolin’, a band from France, play Celtic music sprinkled with French chanson, American roots and even hip hop and have been featured on the last couple Honky Tonk Heroes MerleFest recap episodes.

Alison Brown performs at MerleFest (photo by Gordon Burns)

One of my “must-sees” was Alison Brown. Brown’s history takes her from investment banking to touring with Alison Krauss and Michelle Shocked to four Grammy nominations (winning one) and co-founder of Compass Records Group (CRG).  CRG oversees more than 600 roots music releases and has been called “one of the greatest independent labels of the last decade” by Billboard Magazine. Let’s not forget the cute kids’ videos she shot with “Farmer Jason”, better known in these parts as Jason Ringenberg of Jason and the Scorchers. The portion of her set I caught stunned the crowds with her lightning fast pickin’, humble and sweet countenance and top-shelf band-mates.

A quick gallop back to the Americana stage allowed me to catch the Cleverlys’ encore of Beck’s “Loser” (for realz!). Dead Horses, a fine group out of Wisconsin were next up at Americana stage. Lead singer Sarah Vos’ unique vocal tones relating personal and touching lyrics were completely captivating. Their sound evokes memories of The Cowboy Junkies and Nora Jones, with the tenderness and authenticity of their own.  I have to agree with “No Depression” magazine: they’re a band not to miss!

Evening found your honky-tonk’n Nebraska girl back at the Watson stage for a killer line-up: Rhiannon Giddens, Cicada Rhythm, Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel, Sam Bush, then closing with Jim Lauderdale with special guest Buddy Miller and the North Mississippi Allstars.  Rhiannon was one of the acts I was looking forward to seeing the most.  Lawd, she did not disappoint!

Rhiannon Giddens performs at MerleFest (photo by William Sparklin)

Choosing songs largely from her most recent release Freedom Highway, Giddens took us on activist’s journey, weaving songs of slavery’s pain and abuse with joyful and uplifting spirituals; all drawn from a place deep in our collective selves. Whether she was a dueling fiddler, a skilled banjo- picker, soulful vocalist or some phenomenal combination of both singing and playing, Ms. Giddens was mesmerizing.  True to her passion for human rights, she artfully added elements of storytelling to her set, including “Waterboy” (popularized by Odetta), “We Could Fly”, and a moving “At the Purchaser’s Option”.  Joined by her sister, Lalenja Harrington, they laid out some good ol’ fashioned Carolina sister harmonizing for some of the most earthy yet angelic blending of voices I’ve ever heard.

A quick side-stage change gave us Cicada Rhythm, who brought more amazing sounds with exquisite harmonies sung by a trio of classically trained musicians. Personally, this ol’ gal can’t get enough of their sound that enlivens and modernizes folk music.  I believe it’s bands like Cicada Rhythm are helping to introduce a new and younger audience to traditional American music for the 21st century.

Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel perform at MerleFest (photo by Willa Stein)

Jerry Douglas and Tommy Emmanuel joined forces for one of the many collaborations over the weekend that only Merlefest can bring.  We’ve all heard many bands cover Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire”, but no one will hear what Jerry and Tommy brought that afternoon, moving from the sweet familiar melody to a rocked-out jam.  Jerry Douglas’ dobro sung out in a traditional blues set, with Tommy laying down perfect rhythm and flourishes.

Just about then, they brought their good buddy Sam Bush out and jokingly asked “When will the talent ever start?” Only to break out in a funkified bluegrass version of Steve Wonders’ “Sir Duke.”

This ain’t your grandpa’s bluegrass, for sure!

Jim Lauderdale performs with special guests at MerleFest. (Photo by Gordon Burns).

I was familiar with several cuts off of Buddy Miller and Jim Lauderdale’s Buddy and Jim and the songs are solid, overall sound is okeydokey, but when they were joined by the North Mississippi Allstars, including Jack White’s bass player Dominic Davis, their sound hit the stratosphere! The band hit new layer of grit for “Down in New Orleans”, “I Lost My Job of Loving You”, “Looking for a Heartache” from their album together, as well as “Gasoline and Matches” off of Buddy and Julie Miles’ “Written in Chalk” album.  Another layer of grit was revealed in the soulful sound of Lauderdale’s voice.  A few choice songs from his “Soul Searching” album found Jim reaching into a deep and soulful place to bring his songs to life. Jim easily shared the spotlight with Luther Dickerson’s guitar solos and mentioned how much Doc Watson appreciated Buddy’s new album when it came out. Having an opportunity for a few words with Mr. Lauderdale earlier that day, he asked “where are you out of again”?  “Lincoln, Nebraska, Sir”.  His reply “I’m gonna have to come play Lincoln, then!”  AMEN!

The Midnight Jam at MerleFest. (Photo by William Sparklin).

Hosting the Midnight Jam that night, Jim Lauderdale was dubbed “the hardest working man at Merlefest” and I’d echo a big 10-4! Fortunately for this lil lady, the Midnight Jam started at 10:30.  I was nearly ready to hang up my saddle for the night, but since the Jam was held in a comfortable auditorium, I settled in and soaked up even more spectacular collaborations and several cluster jams.  including Town Mountain and Jim Lauderdale’s take on “Don’t Let Your Deal Go Down”; North Mississippi Allstars joined by Dominic Davis on upright bass covering “Pallet on Your Floor”; and Mandolin Orange with Bobby Britt (Town Mountain) and Tommy Emmanuel performing “Stone Wall Around Your Heart.” Unforgettable music, moments and memories with one final day still to come!

Day four

Mission Temple Fireworks Revival at MerleFest (Photo by William Sparkling)

Knowing I’d get my dose of good ol’ time religion during the “Mission Temple Fireworks Revival” on Sunday, this lil doggie hustled around for the final day of MerleFest.  Mission Temple Fireworks Revival was collectively made up of Paul Thorn & Band, The Blind Boys of Alabama and the McCrary Sisters.  Who needs church when the church comes to the Watson stage!?  Opening with their name-sake song, “Mission Temple Fireworks Stand” to the closing with Willie Dixon’s “You Got to Move”, we were all feelin’ the spirit alive and well. The joyful noise celebrating powerful gospel, soul and funk brought the crowd to their feet and it was still before noon.

Sunday was a slower day at MerleFest, but the highlight for many a festival-goer was Steve Martin and the Steep Canyon Ranger. The crowd grew to fill every seat and every spot of grass in anticipation.   Steep Canyon Rangers opened with a couple of their tunes before bringing Steve Martin out.  A simple “wild and crazy guy” gesture from Steve brought thunderous applause and laughter.

Allow me to express my gratitude to KZUM for allowing me to represent the station at such a prestigious event, and MerleFest for allowing me to be a part of their media team.   I got my earholes all stretched out with new sounds from both new and familiar artists and my pea-pickin’ heart is full of appreciation.  If you’ve wanted to catch a festival that encompasses old-timey traditional American music while including fresh approaches to the traditional sounds, Merlefest is the place to go! If you prefer staying close to home, don’t forget the live shows and many festivals in our area: SUPPORT LIVE MUSIC!

Twyla Twang hosts “HonkyTonk Hereos” every Friday from 9 to 10 p.m. on KZUM.