MerleFest, presented by Window World, has officially come to a close, but not without a number of electric collaborations, spontaneous sit-ins, and world-class performances. Wynonna & The Big Noise, Amos Lee, Tyler Childers, Sam Bush Band, Brandi Carlile, and The Avett Brothers all brought extra MerleFest energy to the Watson Stage, marking another successful year for the long-running festival. Early estimates show that from its start on Thursday, April 25, to its close on Sunday, April 28, participation over the festival’s four days exceeded 75,000 attendees and artists from across the world. MerleFest, held on the campus of Wilkes Community College, is the primary fundraiser for the WCC Foundation, which funds scholarships, capital projects, and other educational needs.
“We’ve had an incredible weekend,” Festival Director Ted Hagaman said. “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. Preliminary numbers show we attracted thousands of fans from all over the world. We appreciate their support. This event 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.”
Chatham County Line kicked off the 32nd annual MerleFest with a big “newgrass” bang. At the top of their game, Raleigh-based Chatham County Line appeared right at home on one of the biggest stages their home state has to offer. After Thursday’s sunset, Wynonna Judd and her band, The Big Noise, set about conjuring up enough rock and roll, blues, and country juju to knock the first-day crowd right off their feet. Once the crowd had recovered, the ones left with enough energy to carry on into the wee hours were treated with more electric boogie music in the form of Donna The Buffalo. Sporting dancey rhythms and electric improvisation, Donna proved to be the ultimate weekend ice-breakers, encouraging the late night crowd to let loose during their First Night Dance on the Bojangles’ Dance Stage.
Before the sun had set on Friday, patrons were treated to show-stopping sets from the likes of Texas troubadour Radney Foster, Boston-based bluegrassers Mile Twelve, and the soft folk harmonies and humorous musings of The Milk Carton Kids. Upon the close of the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition, festival first-timer Amos Lee took the Watson Stage with his unique blend of soulful Americana. Tyler Childers closed out the Watson Stage with his now famous concoction of mountain music, old school country, and 1960s The Band-ish rock and roll. Under the bright stage lights, Childers rollicked through songs off of his award-winning 2017 album “Purgatory” to the delight of fans, some of whom had traveled to MerleFest on Childers’ merit alone. During Childers’ set, eclectic folk rockers Scythian set up in the Dance Tent for their second set of the day, the annual Friday Night Dance. Keeping the night owls rocking until almost midnight, Scythian reminded fans just how fun their music can be.
Saturday saw Chris Austin Songwriting Competition winners perform on the Cabin Stage to an audience eager to hear these up-and-coming songwriters before they’ve hit the big time. Now in its 27th year, the contest is an extraordinary opportunity for aspiring writers to have their original songs heard and judged by a panel of music industry professionals (Joey Ryan and Kenneth Pattengale, better known as The Milk Carton Kids, Cruz Contreras of The Black Lillies, and Texas-troubadour Radney Foster), under the direction of volunteer contest chairperson, Grammy Award-winning singer/songwriter Jim Lauderdale.
The first round of the CASC took place in Nashville, Tenn., and was narrowed down from 970 entries to 12 finalists representing four categories: bluegrass, country, general and Gospel/inspirational.
Each of the 12 finalists received admission and lodging for three nights at MerleFest. Finalists attended a workshop Friday morning given by D’Addario prior to the finals. After the contest, all finalists took part in a songwriting mentoring session with Jim Lauderdale and the on-site judges. The first-place winners in each category received $600 cash from MerleFest, a performance at the Cabin Stage on Friday night, and a 20-minute set on Saturday at the Cabin Stage. In addition, the first-place winners received a live performance/recording session with Saloon Studios Live, D’Addario strings, Shubb Capos, and their winning song will be aired on WNCW 88.7. Net proceeds from the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest help support the Wilkes Community College Chris Austin Memorial Scholarship. See below for a complete listing of winners and finalists.
1st Place- Anya Hinkle (Asheville, N.C.) – “Ballad of Zona Abston”
2nd Place- James E. Woolsey (Petersburg, Ind.), David Foster (Petersburg, Ind.) – “Sugar Ridge Road”
3rd Place- Wyatt Espalin (Hiawassee, Ga.) – “Light Coming Through”
1st Place- Andrew Millsaps (Ararat, N.C.) – “Ain’t No Genie (In a Bottle of Jack)
2nd Place- Hannah Kaminer (Asheville, N.C.) – “Don’t Open Your Heart”
3rd Place- Shannon Wurst (Fayetteville, Ark.) – “Better Than Bourbon”
1st Place- Alexa Rose (Asheville, N.C.) – “Medicine for Living”
2nd Place- Bryan Elijah Smith (Dayton, Va.) – “In Through the Dark”
3rd Place- Wright Gatewood (Chicago, Ill.) – “First”
1st Place- Russ Parrish (Burnsville, Minn.), Topher King (Savage, Minn.) – “Washed By The Water”
2nd Place- Ashleigh Caudill (Nashville, Tenn.), Jon Weisberger (Cottontown, Tenn.) – “Walkin’ Into Gloryland”
3rd Place- Kevin T.Hale- (Brentwood, Tenn.) – “We All Die to Live Again”
On Saturday, Molly Tuttle returned to the MerleFest stage for the first time since she won the Chris Austin Songwriting Competition in 2012. A rabid crowd ate up every guitar lick and melody Tuttle played as she continues to push the envelope of what can be played on a dreadnaught guitar. The Waybacks’ annual Hillside Album Hour found the bay-area band covering Led Zeppelin IV in its entirety with Sarah Dugas (formerly of The Duhks) handling most of the vocal duties and Sam Bush, Jens Kruger, Red Young, and Tony Williamson backing them up for yet another memorable Saturday afternoon set. Sam Bush Band lit up the Watson Stage ahead of Brandi Carlile, running through his career-spanning catalog of “New Grass” tunes and closing with his new rousing rock and roll anthem, “Stop The Violence”. Traditional Bluegrass super group Earls of Leicester once again paid excellent homage to the giants of the genre, Lester Flatt and Earl Scruggs. In an era of progression for the genre, the Earls brand of picking reminded the crowd that it’s perfectly OK to stick with tradition from time to time. Brandi Carlile and her band closed out Saturday with her signature songwriting style and vocal fireworks. Drawing from her newest release, “By The Way, I Forgive You,” and then diving deeper into her past works, Carlile and longtime musical partners Tim and Phil Hanseroth belted and whispered in close three-part harmonies well enough to make every last MerleFest attendee’s jaw drop. To close out an already special night, Sunday headliners Seth and Scott Avett of The Avett Brothers joined Carlile around a single mic at the front edge of the Watson Stage and performed the Avett’s “Murder In The City”, drawing a huge reaction from the already stunned crowd.
North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper introduced Steep Canyon Rangers Sunday afternoon on the Watson Stage. Late last year, Gov. Cooper declared 2019 to be North Carolina’s “Year of Music”, adding, “from bluegrass to the blues, from gospel to funk, from beach music to indie and hip hop, North Carolina is the birthplace of many musical styles and iconic performers.” Gov. Cooper was in attendance for Steep Canyon Rangers’ “North Carolina Songbook” set on the Watson Stage which dove into the rich history of the region’s music, specifically the musical heritage of their—and the festival’s—home state, and solidified their place in MerleFest lore. Bluegrass patriarch and hair-style pioneer Del McCoury celebrated his 80th birthday surrounded by friends, family, and the Del McCoury Band. Del and the boys fired up the Hillside Stage, highlighting his eight-decade milestone with class and style that only the McCourys can provide. North Carolina’s own The Avett Brothers closed out the festival after having joined their father, Jim Avett, for Sunday’s annual Gospel Hour. On the Watson Stage, gladly playing tunes that spanned their almost-two-decade long career, The Avett Brothers had the crowd singing along from the very first line. While many MerleFest patrons have seen the Avetts at the festival before, this performance proved that the brothers and their band have now truly transcended to the next level of much-deserved stardom.