In April, my daughter, Rebecca, and I had the opportunity to hear the Zac Brown Band in concert at PNC Pavilion in Charlotte. It was the first concert I had attended in many years. I was impressed with the acoustics and the high tech video board which played constantly behind the band.

About halfway through, however, I whispered to Rebecca, “This is fun, but it’s not like MerleFest.”

At a venue such as PNC Pavilion, the audience is thoroughly entertained, but at MerleFest, the emphasis is on listening and connecting to the music and artists.

Wynonna Judd mentioned that very thing in her set Thursday night at Merlefest. She said she was nervous about performing at MerleFest because she’d heard audiences at the festival had a high musical IQ and listened intently to the music.

And that was exactly what happened. The crowd listened and responded to Judd and her band “The Big Noise,” cheering enthusiastically when a familiar song was played such as “Grandpa (Tell Me ‘Bout the Good Old Days.) One of my Judd favorites is, “Love Can Build a Bridge.” Judd is a dynamic performer.

At the smaller MerleFest stages like Creekside and Hillside, audiences have even more of a chance to interact with artists. I was fortunate to hear two sets at Creekside this year, “Memories of the Watson Family” and “Spirit of Sunday.”

“Memories of the Watson Family,” was hosted by T. Michael Coleman, who was accompanied by Mitch Greenhill, David Holt, Sam Bush and Lamar Hill. I especially enjoyed Hill singing one of Doc’s favorites, “Hound Dog,” Greenhill’s version of “Summertime” and Holt on the banjo singing the foot-tapping, “Open Up Them Pearly Gates.”

MerleFest Chaplain Rev. Roy Dobyns, minister at First Baptist Church of Boone, was the keynote speaker for “Spirit of Sunday.”

He was joined onstage by the Jeff Little Trio.  “Spirit of Sunday” is always a “must-see” set for me, because of its intimate vibe.

After a weekend of running around, it’s wonderful to sit and listen to Dobyns speak and have the chance to sing old favorites like, “Be Thou My Vision.” Doc Watson’s brother, David Watson, who is 94, was onstage.

The Hillside Stage’s notoriety comes from the always packed “Album Hour,” but I much prefer the smaller acts. I was fortunate to hear Scythian close out MerleFest on the Hillside Stage this year.

Their raucous Celtic/Ukrainian music gets the people on their feet. Scythian has a great connection with the audience.

New Acts

Several new acts found their way to MerleFest this year. Scottish group, Elephant Sessions, performed Saturday on the Hillside Stage.

They have been touring across Europe and have released two albums, to rave reviews. Their music reminded me of Scythian, without lyrics.

The Americana Stage hosted Aztec Sun, which calls itself a band with “funk and soul.” The group hails from Washington, D.C. Their music certainly wasn’t bluegrass, but had a fun, jazzy vibe, with instruments such as the trumpet and saxophone.

The Shay Martin Lovette Band of Boone won the band contest and performed on the Cabin Stage Saturday evening.

Shay Lovette, the lead singer, and electric guitarist Locke Griffith are both from Wilkes.

Other band members are Ashley Wright, Brandon Holder, Ryan Lassiter and R. Scott Murray. They played songs from their CD, “Swift Drifter,” and the song, “Parkway Bound,” from their new CD.

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