Spring in the foot hills of the Great Smokey mountains of North Carolina is a beautiful time of year, and quite varied in weather too: one morning clear Carolina blue skies and refreshing breezes, and perhaps by evening a cold front and a dusting of snow. The music at MerleFest, which takes place during the last days of April, is as varied and refreshing as the weather.
This year, the roster of artists taking the stages on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro, where the festival is held, will include traditional and progressive masters of roots, blues, bluegrass, folk, Americana, and country music. In the years since it began in 1988, MerleFest has in fact become one of the premiere acoustic music festivals in the United States. It was named in honor of Merle Watson, a fine acoustic musician from the area who died in a farming accident, and it is likely he’d consider it a fitting legacy. Merle often toured with his father, legendary guitarist Doc Watson,who is from nearby Deep Gap. The selection of artists over the years has been informed by Doc’s taste, and he calls it tradition plus. “That is the kind of music Merle and I used to play,” he says. “Traditional music, and then whatever else we felt in the mood to play.”
New England based band Crooked Still, whose trademark is taking traditional bluegrass songs and giving them inventive arrangements, is one of the groups who will be doing that this spring. North Carolina based Balsam Range, whose energetic brand of the high lonesome sound hews a bit more to the traditional side of things, will also be on hand. Award winning singer and songwriter Rory Block will bring her powerful take on Delta blues along with her original songs. Folk Grammy winner Tim O’Brien will bring his songwriting chops, and Alison Brown, who crosses borders among bluegrass, folk, jazz, and Celtic music in her banjo playing, will be making a return visit to Wilkesboro. Rising Americana star Sarah Jarosz will be on hand, as will newgrass veteran Sam Bush. Both Bush and Jarosz play mandolin and so does O’Brien, so will there be a fast flying mando face off? Could be — there are plenty of scheduled collaborations on the bill, and when you get that many top notch musicians together,plenty of unscheduled ones too. That’s often the case especially at the after hours Midnight Jam, which is always a sought after ticket.
There is a main stage, a side stage, and places for workshops and more intimate concerts as well. Music vendors and food vendors will be on hand and there are children’s activities and nature walks going on too.
There will be all sorts of fine music in the air at MerleFest come the end of April. MerleFest offers a happy, family friendly festival that’s loved by musicians who come to play and those who come to add their energy by listening, as well. Should you decide to be part of that, you may want to remember that the weather may be as varied as the music.
photograph of Crooked Still taken with permission of the artists and is copyrighted. thank you for respecting this.