MerleFest 2016 Comes to a Triumphant Close!

Article Contributed by HearthMusic | Published on Sunday, May 1, 2016

MerleFest, presented by Window World, has wrapped up its 29th year. Early estimates show that from its start on Thursday, April 28, to its close on Sunday, May 1, aggregate participation over the festival’s four days was approximately 74,500 participants. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Endowment Corporation, funding scholarships, capital projects and other educational needs.
Over 100 incredible performers contributed to the success of MerleFest 2016, including John Prine, Old Crow Medicine Show, Jason Isbell, John Oates, Brandi Carlile, Dave Rawlings Machine, The Wood Brothers, Tim O’Brien, Tommy Emmanuel, Sam Bush, Steep Canyon Rangers, Jerry Douglas, Peter Rowan, Jim Lauderdale, Alison Brown, Mike Farris and The Roseland Rhythm Revue, The Kruger Brothers, Scythian, Donna the Buffalo, The Waybacks, Doug Seegers and many more.
Every year, music fans at the festival experience what has become known as “MerleFest Moments,” special groupings of performances, jam sessions and events that get the whole festival talking and become legendary in the festival’s rich history.
Thursday night’s MerleFest Moment came when John Prine extended his set by 40 minutes. He was having so much fun onstage that he closed with a sing-along of his classic song “Paradise,” with special guest Jim Lauderdale. Earlier in the day, deep bluegrass roots artists Alison Brown and Steep Canyon Rangers brought creative arrangements and eclectic covers to push the tradition forward.
Friday afternoon, MerleFest was buzzing with praise for Nashville gospel-soul sensation Mike Farris & The Roseland Rhythm Revue’s performance that included a cover of Prince’s “Purple Rain.” Throughout the day, evidence of MerleFest’s international reach was heard, from the vibrant Irish musicians in We Banjo 3 to Canadian high-energy bluegrass band The Slocan Ramblers, who wowed fans throughout the festival. Old Crow Medicine Show closed out the night with songs from their new album and timely covers of Merle Haggard, Doc Watson and Willie Nelson.
On Saturday, leading up to his evening performance on the Watson Stage, Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame member John Oates joined the Sam Bush Band for an all-star jam of the “Merle-va-lettes,” named by T. Michael Coleman. The all-star jam included Jens Kruger, Jack Lawrence, Tony Williamson, Bryan Sutton, John Oates, Tim O’Brien, Jack Lawrence and Coleman. This was Oates’ first time at MerleFest, but he said playing the festival was a dream of his for years. At a press conference earlier in the day, Oates talked about playing with Doc and Merle Watson when he was a 17-year-old boy in Philadelphia. Even a heavy rainstorm did not dampen the spirit of fans who gathered to hear Oates’ performance. Following John Oates, Dave Rawlings Machine closed out the evening with a performance that brought four encores.
Sunday at MerleFest opened to rain, but closed to beautiful sunshine. Morning devotions on the Creekside Stage are an annual tradition, and The South Carolina Broadcasters opened up a set afterwards of Doc Watson’s Sacred Songs. In the afternoon, Australian guitar legend Tommy Emmanuel transformed his instrument with percussive drum brushes to the delight of the packed Hillside Stage crowds. For the festival finalé, Jason Isbell’s powerhouse set brought participants to their feet and showed the roots of Americana.  
MerleFest has always been known for discovering emerging talent in American roots music. From Old Crow Medicine Show to Gillian Welch, the Avett Brothers to Tift Merritt, careers blossom from breakout performances on our stages. The 2016 MerleFest lineup continues this trend, bringing together Kacy & Clayton, Liz Vice, Billy Strings, Penny & Sparrow, Jeff Scroggins and Colorado, The Brothers Comatose, High Plains Jamboree, Lindsay Lou & The Flatbellys, Seth Walker, The Slocan Ramblers, and Shinyribs, which drew the largest crowd ever at the Americana Stage.
The great MerleFest tradition of the Hillside Album Hour, hosted by The Waybacks, returned with guest vocalist Nicki Bluhm. MerleFest's bucolic Hillside Stage began filling with crowds two hours prior to the Hillside Album Hour. The Waybacks and Nicki Bluhm surprised the audience by starting off with a medley of songs by Yes, David Bowie and Prince as a tribute to the great artists who recently passed away. As the medley transitioned to The Eagles’ “Their Greatest Hits 1971-1975,” fans exploded in applause.
The Midnight Jam on Saturday, presented in partnership with The Bluegrass Situation and hosted by Donna the Buffalo, featured special guests Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, The Wood Brothers, Billy Strings, Peter Rowan, Jeff Scroggins & Colorado, Wood & Wire, Becky Buller, Tommy Emmanuel, Jim Lauderdale and more. Musicians and bands paired off for impromptu collaborations to create some great moments, such as Peter Rowan picking with David Rawlings and Gillian Welch; Billy Strings and Bryan Sutton dueling with guitars; Tommy Emmanuel and Jeff Scroggins trading licks on “Guitar Boogie”; and Donna the Buffalo’s Tara Nevins fiddling with banjo master Pete Wernick. All the musicians gathered onstage at 2:30 a.m. to finish up with a rousing singalong of “I’ll Fly Away.”
MerleFest continues to celebrate the life and music of Doc and Merle Watson because the legacy of their music is the artistic center of the festival. Musician, composer and storyteller T. Michael Coleman joined Doc and Merle to tour the world and help create countless Grammy-nominated and Grammy-awarded recordings. Coleman has joined the festival in its mission to keep Doc and Merle at the heart of MerleFest. His annual Saturday “Memories of Doc & Merle” set is part of that mission.
“Musicians and fans alike think of MerleFest as a way to come together as a family to pay tribute to these very special musicians. The ‘memories’ set is pretty much based around our connections with Doc and Merle,” Coleman said. “All the artists participating have a direct connection to Doc and Merle and were influenced by them greatly.”
T. Michael Coleman hosted the “Memories of The Watson Family” set, which included artists Sam Bush, Bryan Sutton, David Holt, Jack Lawrence, Alison Brown, Jeff Little, Pat McInerney, Jim Lauderdale, Mitch Greenhill, The Kruger Brothers, Joe Smothers, Lamar Hill, Wayne Henderson and Happy Traum. Everyone shared personal stories of their experiences with the Watson family.
Coleman continued, “We’re here because of these two musicians, and the guys on stage performing during the set are the closest you can get to them. It’s family. Doc and Merle were the nucleus to these friendships that have remained all these years. It’s a family reunion on stage that the audience just happens to be a part of. And for those of us on stage, it’s almost as if Doc and Merle are there on stage with us.”
The Asheville, N.C.-based “newgrass” band Fireside Collective won the MerleFest Band Competition held on Saturday. With deep roots in bluegrass and folk, the band’s creative arrangements and passionate energy carried to their subsequent set on the Watson Stage. They were discovered first by MerleFest Artist Relations Manager Steve Johnson, who heard them in Asheville and invited them to compete in the second MerleFest Band Competition.
In addition to promoting "traditional plus" music, a term coined by Doc Watson to describe the wide variety of musical genres and styles celebrated at MerleFest, the festival also featured heritage crafts demonstrations, instrument picking lessons and jam sessions, dancing, music education workshops and the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest. 
“What a great weekend!” exclaimed Festival Director Ted Hagaman. “With over 100 artists on 13 stages, representing everything from Americana and bluegrass, to gospel, rock, country, blues and zydeco, we feel that we succeeded again in providing our festival guests a great value for their entertainment dollars. We deeply appreciate the support of the great folks of the Northwestern North Carolina region, everyone who works at the college, and of course our volunteers and fans for making this possible. We’re already looking forward to 2017 as we celebrate MerleFest 30.”
MerleFest 2016 is presented by Window World. MerleFest is grateful to 90+ sponsors and advertisers for their support in making the event possible, including Belk, Pepsi, Charlotte and Greensboro area Burger King restaurants, G&B Energy, Tyson, InterFlex Group, Hardee's, Winston-Salem Journal, WXII 12, the Law Offices of Timothy D. Welborn, Bojangles', Carolina Ford Dealers, Carolina West Wireless, Lowes Foods, Wilkes Communications, Wilkes Regional Medical Center, Wells Fargo and Mast General Store.  A complete listing of all MerleFest sponsors and additional information about all aspects of the festival can be found at
MerleFest 2017 will be held at Wilkes Community College on April 27-30, 2017.