MerleFest returns April 24-27
Thursday, April 24
Thursday’s lineup includes Alan Jackson, Carolina Chocolate Drops, Holly Williams, Scythian, The Duhks, Junior Sisk and Ramblers Choice, Josh Farrow and others. That afternoon, participants in Pete Wernick’s MerleFest Bluegrass Jam Camp will perform on the Cabin Stage. Legendary dobro player Tut Taylor will kick off performances at the Plaza Stage at 2:30 p.m., and the Opening Night Dance with The Duhks will take place at 10 p.m. at the Dance Stage.
Friday, April 25
Friday’s lineup includes BanjoRama, an all-star collaboration between some of music’s top banjo players, hosted by Pete Wernick and including Jens Kruger, Sammy Shelor, Alison Brown, Mark Johnson, Jim Mills, Rob McCoury, Terry Baucom, Ned Luberecki and Graham Sharp. Additionally, fans will hear performances by Old Crow Medicine Show, Keller Williams and the Travelin’ McCourys, Tim O’Brien and Darrell Scott, Balsam Range, Lonesome River Band, Peter Rowan Band, Sutton, Holt & Coleman, Missy Raines and The New Hip, Todd Snider, Donna the Buffalo, The Steel Wheels and others.
Saturday, April 26
The lineup for Saturday, April 26, includes performances by Dr. Ralph Stanley, Ricky Skaggs and Kentucky Thunder, Steep Canyon Rangers, Sam Bush Band, Town Mountain, Alison Brown Quartet, Peter Rowan, The Steel Wheels, Della Mae, Claire Lynch Band, Nora Jane Struthers and the Party Line, Frank Solivan and Dirty Kitchen, Niall Toner Band, Mark Johnson and Emory Lester among others.
Sunday, April 27
Sunday, April 27, will open with the “Spirit of Sunday” with the Nashville Bluegrass Band and the Avett Family Gospel Hour at Creekside Stage. Sunday will also feature performances by Merle Haggard, Dailey & Vincent with Jimmy Fortune, Jerry Douglas, The Deadly Gentlemen, Claire Lynch Band, Jim Lauderdale, Mandolin Orange, Donna the Buffalo, Del Rey, Overmountain Men and others.
(Note: Schedule and performances are subject to change. For the most up-to-date listings, visit http://www.merlefest.org, or download the MerleFest mobile app, available on Android and iOS.)
What should one expect from MerleFest?
To Sam Bush, the father of Newgrass, the answer is simple.
“Incredible music and integrity,” he said. “The quality of musicianship is unparalleled.”
And Bush would know, having performed at MerleFest since before it was even MerleFest. It started as the Merle Watson Memorial Festival in 1988 and continues today as one of the premier music festivals in the country, promising more than 130 acts on 13 stages during its four-day course.
This year, MerleFest returns April 24 to 27 on the campus of Wilkes Community College in Wilkesboro.
As one of the first major outdoor music festivals of the year, it’s a time when performers and audiences alike can reconnect with old friends, family and familiar faces.
“MerleFest is a homecoming of sorts,” Bush said. “It’s a great way to see all your friends, get outdoors, have some fun and get to honor Doc and Merle (Watson).”
The festival was founded in 1988 in memory of Eddy Merle Watson, who died in 1985. He was the son of flatpicking legend Doc Watson, who died in 2012. The festival not only celebrates their lives, but also the music Doc branded “traditional plus,” meaning traditional music, plus anything else he and his friends felt like playing.
As such, MerleFest features a variety of performances that transcend bluegrass and country. Those roots remain strong, however, with 2014’s headliners including Alan Jackson on Thursday, Old Crow Medicine Show on Friday, Steep Canyon Rangers on Saturday and Merle Haggard on Sunday.
MerleFest regulars know to look beyond the playbill, however. The festival is rife with what fans, organizers and performers call “MerleFest Moments,” times when everything aligns just right for artists to join their colleagues, some rather unlikely, for momentous and memorable jams.
“Playing with Los Lobos was a real kick,” Bush said. “A couple years ago, Derek Trucks and Susan Tedeschi sat in with our band on a couple songs, so that was a surprise for the audience.”
But surprises come in many shapes — and requests. Performer Bryan Sutton, who won a Grammy Award with Doc Watson for their collaboration on the bluegrass staple, “Whiskey in the Jar,” received a request one year from Watson’s wife, the late Rosa Lee Watson, to play banjo for her.
His banjo work was featured on Randy Travis’s gospel album, Sutton recalled, and it had caught Rosa Lee’s attention.
“So, I said, ‘OK, I’ll try to get together and play some for her over the weekend,’” he said. “I wasn’t really sure how in the world it was going to happen.”
As it turned out, Sutton wound up on the Cabin Stage with Doc Watson — and borrowing Béla Fleck’s banjo.
“We played ‘Unclouded Day,’” Sutton said. “Because of all the speaker towers and all that, we had get right to the front edge of the stage … so Rosa Lee could see it (from her seat). Having that come from her and getting to play the song with Doc, essentially for her, that was kind of a moment, a very special thing.”
Although MerleFest Moments can’t be scheduled, artist relations manager Steve Johnson tries his best. Certain programs, presentations and festival favorites are guaranteed to tune into something special. For instance, Dr. Ralph Stanley performs Saturday, as part of his final year of touring.
“We’ll bring Ricky Skaggs on to join his set, as will Jim Lauderdale; they have a long history of performing with Dr. Ralph,” Johnson said. “Then Ricky will have his own set, and Sam Bush and Steep Canyon Rangers will close out Saturday night. They’ve already informed us they have a number of special guests who will join them. They haven’t announced who they are, so folks will just have to stick around to see.”
The same goes for the Hillside Album Hour. Every MerleFest Saturday, the Hillside Stage is literally overflowing with fans, anxiously awaiting the big reveal — the album title that The Waybacks and their surprise guests will perform from start to finish. Per tradition, the album is kept a secret, right up until the first chord is struck. For those who just can’t wait (and who enjoy cryptic clues), The Waybacks have posted hints on the 2014 Hillside Album Hour Guess-A-Thon Facebook page.
That doesn’t stop some more persistent fans from asking.
“Don’t even go there,” festival director Ted Hagaman said. “It’ll be good, though.”
One of Hagaman’s favorite MerleFest Moments didn’t come from Hillside, but rather the Watson Stage. 2013’s Doc Watson Tribute featured the late performer’s closest friends and fellow musicians, including Bush, Sutton, T. Michael Coleman, Jack Lawrence, Peter Rowan, John McEuen, Jeff Little, Wayne Henderson and many others.
“Seeing those guys go out there … was a humbling experience for those fellows,” Hagaman said. “They realized they were carrying a responsibility to honor somebody.”
To artists like Bush and Sutton, it’s also their responsibility to carry on the Watsons’ musical tradition.
Bush and friends had performed tribute sets to Merle throughout the decades, but 2013 marked the first time they performed in memory of Doc.
“It’s encouraging that you’re going to see people learning Doc and Merle’s music through those of us that played with them,” Bush said. “And, of course, it’s fun music to play. We love it. Doc loved a good, big, jam session, so we try to do that.”
Tickets and More
Tickets to MerleFest are available by visiting http://www.merlefest.org, calling (800) 343-7857 or emailing (firstname.lastname@example.org)
For more information, including a complete schedule and listing of events and programs, such as Nature Walks, the Songwriters Showcase, Little Pickers, the Chris Austin Songwriting Contest, raffles, silent auctions and more, visit http://www.merlefest.org.