A special emphasis on music born and raised in North Carolina was infused into the four Americana-soaked days of the 32nd MerleFest, which concluded Sunday on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro.
An estimated 75,000 people participated in the festival from Thursday to Sunday, about the same as the prior year’s MerleFest.
Well over half of participation is paid ticket holders, but it includes artists, volunteers, vendors and staff. It also includes students admitted for free Friday and students present when MerleFest artists performed at over 15 Wilkes schools on Thursday.
The weather was ideal except for a few rain showers Thursday and Friday and wind Friday. The turnout was especially large Saturday, often the best-attended day.
“We had an incredible weekend,” said Ted Hagaman, festival director. “With over 100 artists on 13 stages over the four days, we again feel we succeeded in providing a quality and successful event for all involved.”
Hagaman said he appreciated the support from thousands of fans from all over the world. He added that MerleFest “could not happen without the work and dedication of our 4,500-plus volunteers and the many great safety and service agencies in northwestern North Carolina. We’re already looking forward to MerleFest 2020.”
Gov. Roy Cooper appeared on the Doc & Merle Watson Stage Sunday to introduce the Steep Canyon Rangers for a set titled North Carolina Songbook,” paying tribute to influential North Carolina musicians. The band performed the songs of eight Tarheel musicians, plus some of their own work.
Cooper, the first North Carolina governor to attend MerleFest, mentioned “Come Hear N.C.,” a campaign underway focusing on the musicians and music of the state.
The band began its set, called “North Carolina Songbook,” with “Stand by Me,” an R&B hit written and recorded by Ben E. King (Benjamin Earl Nelson). He was born in Henderson in 1938, but moved with his family to Harlem as a youth. King was a member of the Drifters and also wrote and performed “Save the Last Dance for Me” and “Spanish Harlem.”
Festival favorites the Avett Brothers of Concord closed out the festival with a set that engaged a receptive audience that readily sang and danced to the songs. Earlier in the day, the Avett Brothers joined their father Jim Avett on the Creekside Stage for the annual “Gospel Hour.”
“We’ve played this festival many times and it’s always more than an honor to be here,” said vocalist and guitarist Seth Avett.
Scott Avett, the band’s other main vocalist and banjo player, recalled a time when he thanked Doc Watson for letting the band open a show for the flatpicking legend. Watson deadpanned, “I didn’t know you were opening the show.” Avett laughed and added, “But we’re thankful he promoted us.”
The Avetts returned to the stage for an encore performance of “No Hard Feelings,” and implored the audience to repeat its final refrain of “I have no enemies.”
Sunday on the Hillside Stage, bluegrass patriarch Del McCoury celebrated his 80th birthday with a strong set, surrounded by friends, family and the Del McCoury Band.
Grammy Award-winning Brandi Carlile and her band closed out Saturday’s music on the Watson Stage with a set accentuating her signature songwriting and vocal fireworks.
Drawing from her newest release, “By the Way, I Forgive You,” and back catalog, Carlile and longtime musical partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth alternately belted and whispered in close three-part harmonies.
To close out the well-received set, Seth and Scott Avett joined Carlile around a single mic at the front edge of the stage and performed the Avetts’ “Murder in the City,” drawing a loud reaction from the crowd.
Each category winner of the 27th annual Chris Austin Songwriting Competition performed on the Cabin Stage Saturday. Anya Hinkle of Asheville took top honors in the bluegrass category for the song “Ballad of Zona Abston.” Andrew Millsaps of Ararat captured first in the country category for “Ain’t No Genie (In a Bottle of Jack).”
In the general category, Alexa Rose of Asheville was awarded first place for her song “Medicine for Living.” Two residents of Minnesota—Russ Parrish of Burnsville and Topher King of Savage—co-wrote the gospel/inspirational winner, “Washed by the Water.”
Net proceeds from the songwriting contest help support the Wilkes Community College’s Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship.
On Saturday, Molly Tuttle returned to the MerleFest stage for the first time since she won the songwriting competition in 2012. Tuttle impressed the crowd with her dreadnaught guitar work, showing why she’s the back-to-back IBMA Guitar Player of the Year, the first woman ever nominated for the honor.
The Hillside Stage was jam-packed Saturday for the Waybacks’ annual “Album Hour,” which this year saw the San Francisco Bay-area band covering “Led Zeppelin IV” in its entirety with Sarah Dugas (formerly of the Duhks) handling most of the vocal duties. Guest musicians included Sam Bush, Jens Kruger, Red Young and Tony Williamson.
Bush later lit up the Watson Stage ahead of Carlile, running through his career-spanning catalog of “New Grass” tunes and closing with a new rousing rock and roll anthem, “Stop the Violence.”
Traditional bluegrass super group the Earls of Leicester, featuring Dobro maestro Jerry Douglas, once again paid excellent homage to two giants of the genre, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. The band closed out the day’s Hillside Stage shows with the “Sunset Sessions.”
Before the sun had set on Friday, patrons were treated to show-stopping sets from the likes of Texas troubadour Radney Foster on the Hillside Stage, Boston-based bluegrass band Mile Twelve on the Creekside Stage, and the soft folk harmonies and self-deprecating humor of the Milk Carton Kids on the Watson Stage.
After the songwriting winners were announced, festival first-timer Amos Lee of Philadelphia took the Watson Stage with his unique blend of soulful Americana.
Kentucky’s Tyler Childers closed out the Watson Stage with his amalgam of mountain music, old school country, and 1960s rock and roll. Under the main stage lights, Childers rollicked through songs off of his award-winning 2017 album “Purgatory” to the delight of his fans.
Near the tail end of Childers’ set, eclectic folk rockers Scythian launched into their second set of the day inside the Dance Tent. A large crowd fed off the band’s high-energy numbers during the Friday Night Dance that extended almost until midnight.
The strong Thursday lineup on the Watson Stage included bluegrass from opening act Chatham County Line and Nashville’s Dailey and Vincent, the country music and unique guitar licks of Junior Brown and Americana crooner Radney Foster.
Wynonna and the Big Noise, in an inaugural MerleFest appearance, drew one of the larger crowds for a closing Thursday night act on the Watson Stage.
Wynonna Judd and her band performed 1980s country chart-toppers recorded by the Judds (Wynonna and her mother, Naomi) like “Why Not Me” and “Grandpa, Tell Me ‘Bout the Good ‘Ol Days” and some of Wynonna’s more recent hits such as “She Is His Only Need” and “Things That I Lean On.”
In between songs, Wynonna spoke about challenges and tragedies she has faced. She bantered with her husband, band member Michael Scott “Cactus” Moser, and at one point Moser reminded Wynonna that she was performing before a musically well-educated crowd. Their interchange referenced their strong relationship and mutual support through trials.
The adjacent Cabin Stage featured Asheville-based Ashley Heath and Her Heathens, MerleFest blues regular Roy Book Binder, Pete Wernick with the week’s Jam Camp participants at Camp Herring Ridge in Boomer and local musicians R.G. Absher, Randy Gambill, Billy Gee, Tony Joines, Mike Palmer, Jeff Pardue, Donnie Story and Wes Tuttle as the Banknotes.
Thursday ended with Donna the Buffalo performing an “Opening Night Dance” in the Dance Tent.
MerleFest is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs. It is also a major fundraiser for dozens of local nonprofits.