With only one week until the start of MerleFest 2016, presented by Window World, the town of Wilkesboro, N.C. is buzzing with activity. Starting next Thursday, April 28, at 2:30 p.m., and running through Sunday, May 1, approximately 75,000 participants will gather at this annual homecoming of musicians and music lovers at Wilkes Community College for the nation’s largest celebration of American roots music.
With over 100 artists on 13 stages throughout the college, participants at MerleFest know to expect the unexpected. Late night jam sessions, band competitions, special guests onstage, impromptu dance parties and one-time-only musical collaborations are all a part of the fabric of MerleFest – and a testament to the enduring vision of Doc Watson and the Watson family. A key part of this vision is Doc’s idea of “traditional plus” music. Taking traditional Appalachian music as the base, “traditional plus” incorporates the many forms of American music that came from Appalachian roots and expanding to include blues, country, Americana, rock and bluegrass. Today this “traditional plus” spirit means that Americana star Jason Isbell will rub shoulders with young bluegrass visionary Sierra Hull or John Oates of famed rock duo Hall & Oates can jam with “newgrass” pioneer Sam Bush. As the nation’s largest roots and Americana festival, MerleFest has room for all those who treasure the American traditions.
“In addition to the spectrum of genres offered at MerleFest, this year’s lineup speaks to the quality of music offered at the festival,” said Steve Johnson, artist relations manager for MerleFest. “On our stages we’ll have many Grammy Award-winners or multi-Grammy Award-winners, Americana Music Award winners, Country Music Association winners, and International Bluegrass Music Association Award (IBMA) winners, among many other local, regional, songwriting and instrument awards. I know that awards are only one way of recognizing outstanding talent, but these associations and their members invest a lot in considering artists to select the best of the best each year.”
Grammy Award Winners
Alison Brown, Jason Isbell, John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jerry Douglas, Jim Lauderdale, Tim O’Brien and Steep Canyon Rangers
Americana Music Association Winners
Jason Isbell, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jerry Douglas, and Gillian Welch and Dave Rawlings, who also won the AMA Lifetime Achievement Award
Country Music Association Award Winners
Gillian Welch, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jerry Douglas, John Prine, and Sam Bush
IBMA Award Winner
Steep Canyon Rangers, Jerry Douglas, Amanda Smith, Becky Buller, Junior Sisk, Tim O’Brien, Karl Shiflett, Bryan Sutton, Alison Brown, Peter Rowan, Sam Bush, Jerry Douglas, Scott Vestal, Kenny Smith
Rock and Roll Hall of Fame
Like many performers at MerleFest, Dan Fedoryka, a founding member of the MerleFest fan favorite band Scythian, knows that performing at this festival is a chance to pay homage to the greats who came before. "We play festivals all over the country ranging from Celtic to roots festivals, and I can say that MerleFest holds a special place in our hearts,” Fedoryka said. “It’s here that our eyes were opened to the living tradition in music: we got to actually meet the greats that up until then had been beyond reach, almost mythical. There are many things that give you a sense of accomplishment in a musical career, but to meet the greats, to shake the hands of Doc Watson, Levon Helm and others is something that stays with you and makes a difference in how you move forward as a musician. This respect for tradition is palpable and seeps into the audience. After eight years at MerleFest, we can say that we feel like family with the attendees and have seen many children grow up before our eyes, a truly unique environment that just can't be found anywhere else."
The complete lineup and stage schedules are posted at merlefest.org/lineup and available on the MerleFest mobile app; festival updates are delivered via Twitter (@MerleFest) and Facebook. Use hashtag #MerleFest to connect with other festivalgoers on social media, and be sure to take a picture with Flattop, MerleFest’s raccoon mascot.
On Thursday, April 28, MerleFest will feature performances by John Prine, Alison Brown, Steep Canyon Rangers, Shannon Witworth, Tellico, and others, as well as unique collaborations between artists, for example Donna the Buffalo with Peter Rowan and Jim Lauderdale. Earlier in the day, participants in Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Jam Camp will perform on the Cabin Stage, and North Carolina’s bluegrass-tinged joyride Love Canon will open up the dance tent at 9:30 p.m.
On Friday, April 29, MerleFest fans will enjoy performances by legendary artists like Old Crow Medicine Show, Peter Rowan and Jerry Douglas, festival favorites like Scythian and The Kruger Brothers, and MerleFest newcomers like Doug Seegers. The Brothers Comatose and Billy Strings, plus international artists Australian bluegrass singer Kristy Cox, and Irish banjo trio We Banjo 3 and Canadian artists The Slocan Ramblers and Kacy & Clayton. At 2 p.m, crowds will gather for the finals of the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, hosted by Jim Lauderdale. The winners of the contest will perform at 7:30 p.m. on the Cabin Stage. This contest is renowned for discovering new talent and showcasing the next stars in American roots music.
Friday also offers the Doc and Merle Watson Performing Arts Showcase, hosted by Joe Smothers and Bob Hill of Frosty Morn on the Austin Stage. The series is intended as a diverse, eclectic sampling of local and regional talent, allowing festivalgoers to see the artists in a more intimate setting. Also in honor of the Watson family, Friday features the Docabilly-Blues Blowout featuring David Holt of the PBS series “State of Music,” Jim Lauderdale, T. Michael Coleman, Tara Nevins, String Madness and more. Closing out the night, Donna the Buffalo will light up the Dance Stage into the midnight hour.
On Saturday, April 30, festivalgoers will enjoy performances from icons like John Oates, Dave Rawlings Machine, Sam Bush Band and Jim Lauderdale, plus showcases from visionary roots bands and musicians like The Wood Brothers, Shinyribs, April Verch, Penny & Sparrow, Zoe & Cloyd, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, Wood & Wire, Becky Buller and more.
Special events Saturday during the day include the MerleFest Band Competition; Mando Mania, a showcase of mandolin legends including Sam Bush and Tim O’Brien; and workshops and interpretive sets like “Learn to Jam” with Pete Wernick and “Songs of the Civil War” with Sparky and Rhonda Rucker. Of special note to MerleFest devotees is the Memories of the Watson Family workshop hosted by T. Michael Coleman with guests Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, Jens Kruger, Jeff Little, Jack Lawrence, David Holt and other family friends.
The great MerleFest tradition of The Hillside Album Hour, hosted by The Waybacks, returns with guest vocalist Nicki Bluhm. MerleFest has been leaking hints as to which classic album will be reinterpreted for the Album Hour, but the album in question will remain a mystery up until the start of the set at 4:15 p.m. on the Hillside Stage.
In the late night hours, the crowd-pleasing Midnight Jam will raise the roof of the Walker Center. A separate ticket is required and available for purchase by 4-day and 3-day ticket holders and Saturday-only ticket holders. Hosted this year by Donna the Buffalo and sponsored by The Bluegrass Situation, this popular hootenanny gathers together many performers from the festival for impromptu artistic collaborations and one-of-a-kind superstar jams. Guests this year include Tommy Emmanuel, Peter Rowan, Mipso, Becky Buller, Jim Lauderdale and more, plus surprise special guests!
The final day at MerleFest, Sunday, May 1, begins with morning devotions at the Creekside Stage, gospel music with Jim Avett, the father of the Avett Brothers, and the uniquely American sound of shape-note singing with Laura Boosinger at the Traditional Stage. Throughout the day, festivalgoers will enjoy uplifting performances from artists Liz Vice, Annie Moses Band, The Bros. Landreth and Jonathan Byrd & The Pickup Cowboys, followed by show-stopping sets from artists Jason Isbell, Brandi Carlile, Tim O’Brien, Tommy Emmanuel and Sierra Hull. Other activities include the MerleFest Open Mic at the Plaza Stage where musical guests can join in the fun on stage and hear Carol Rifkin, Laura Boosinger, Sarah Osborne, Jeanette Queen and others sing and play traditional music.