About a week from now, had the coronavirus not reared its ugly, spiked head, I’d be gearing up to cover another MerleFest for this newspaper. While I’m deeply disappointed that won’t be happening, that doesn’t mean we can’t be uplifted by music at home from April 23-26.
On the Wilkes Journal-Patriot’s YouTube channel, we’ve curated playlists featuring live video performances (some at past MerleFests) of artists who were scheduled to headline the 2020 festival.
There’s a playlist below for each day of the festival, each containing a couple hours of entertainment to brighten anyone’s home hibernation.
Two country music superstars who had top billing Thursday evening on the main Watson Stage were Willie Nelson and Alison Krauss.
Nelson’s set was sure to be a family affair, as son Lukas Nelson and his band Promise of the Real were almost guaranteed to join him on stage after performing their own set earlier in the evening. The playlist includes father and son doing a lovely cover of Pearl Jam’s “Just Breathe,” adding sibling Micah Nelson for a recent “Quarantunes Evening Session” tune and even a nice mini-documentary on the family’s musical legacy.
About 38 minutes of Krauss, Union Station and Jerry Douglas’s set from the 2012 MerleFest—the 25th celebration of the festival—was shot and uploaded by a fan. The quality is decent and the music is unsurprisingly top notch.
Musical diversity is the key selling point to Friday’s big stage headliners: Billy Strings, the Marcus King Band and Greensky Bluegrass.
Strings took the Dance Stage in 2016 as a 23-year-old wonderkid flatpicker, and the playlist includes him blazing through several songs and an encore of “Freeborn Man.”
I was looking forward to Marcus King’s electric blues-rock band more than any other act this year. To give you a heaping helping of King’s brilliance, the playlist includes a two-hour set recorded live on Sept. 27, 2019, at King’s “Family Reunion” festival in Black Mountain. Don’t miss it!
Greensky has never played MerleFest, but they’ve played sold-out shows across the country, including two sets on Sept. 13, 2019, at Red Rocks Amphitheater in Colorado, a venue that’s on my personal bucket list. Together, it’s two and a half hours of live 4K (ultra high-definition) goodness.
The final two Saturday sets on the Watson Stage were entrusted to perennial favorite Sam Bush and Melissa Etheridge, who would have made her festival debut.
Speaking of “Freeborn Man,” Bush, Tony Rice, Bela Fleck, Jerry Douglas and Mark O’Connor tear up the main stage in a 1992 legendary supergroup performance that’s got over 1.3 million views on YouTube. I’ve also included an amazing 28-minute Bush set from 2012 that has guest appearances by Susan Tedeschi, Derek Trucks, John Cowan and Fleck.
Etheridge recently played three songs—including one of her signature hits “Come to My Window”—for the MTV Unplugged at Home series, plus I’ve included an hour-long solo show recorded four years ago at Infinity Hall in Norfolk, Conn.
Two musical veterans with incredible pedigrees—Mavis Staples and John Prine, who passed away on April 7—were set to close out the festival Sunday on the Watson Stage.
Staples is still going strong at 80, and to honor both her past and present I’ve playlisted an 11-plus-minute jam of “I’ll Take You There” from 1975 and a nearly hour-long band show from 2017 called “The Amazing Mavis Staples.”
Prine’s contribution to the playlist is a treasure-trove of 16 songs (75 minutes on stage) performed by the master wordsmith at the 2016 festival, including my personal favorite, “Angel from Montgomery.”
While these playlists are no substitute for the real thing, I hope they serve as reminders why we love MerleFest for the music, moments and memories.